I am a parent in a neurodiverse family who has used Collaborative Proactive Solutions (CPS) for more than 7 years.
Editor’s note: the author of this post is non-autistic. While this is an autistic publication, we sometimes post articles from allies when we feel the content is helpful to our community.
I found Collaborative Proactive Solutions (CPS) after more than 10 difficult years of trying everything I knew and everything everybody else suggested to parent my autistic kids. Traditional methods like rewards and consequences didn’t help and actually made things worse.
I was drawn to CPS because I was looking for help with managing daily activities, and it did help those. But after years of using it with my family and with my kids, I am starting to see the long-term effects of CPS– and those are even more compelling than each individual behavioral solution.
So many of my parenting assumptions were based on my own neurotypical** experience or internalized neurotypical societal norms. Before CPS, I thought my kids were inflexible and rigid. With CPS, I began to see how inflexible I was as their parent and how much better I could be if I reframed what the problem was before I spent all my effort trying to fix it.
CPS in Summary
At the foundation of CPS is the assumption that mental skills are as diverse in development and adulthood as physical skills, and because of that, kids do well when they can (not just when they want to).
In the just-enough-so-you-can-follow-my-story-summary: Traditional parenting in our neurotypical society is based on the idea that kids do well when they want to. Thus, the goal of parenting is to try to get kids to “want” to behave. That entails rewards, consequences, punishments, and explaining why an adult is “right” or why an expectation is “reasonable.”
The CPS method is the polar opposite of that. Developed by Dr. Greene and supported by his non-profit, Lives in the Balance, it starts with the scientifically-based understanding that development of mental skills with a particular kid is not predictable. Their development can’t be understood in the context of peers or a linear timeline, and not all humans have the same skills. Because of that, negative behavior isn’t a “choice” so much as a lack of the particular skills required in that moment. Thus, “Kids do well when they can.”
CPS does not start with what your expectations should be as parents, because that will vary depending on each parent, child, family, culture, area, and circumstance. Instead, it gives you a clear process to use when your kids have difficulty meeting those expectations.
In the CPS method, Plan A, which isn’t encouraged, refers to that traditional method used to “motivate” kids to do better, which often looks like rewards, consequences, focusing on teaching kids to have skills more like neurotypical kids, or other ABA type methods. Instead, the method teaches adults to respond to a child’s behavior with either “Plan B” or “Plan C.”
Plan C is the removal or modification of low priority expectations, so that all the focus and energy can be used to collaboratively work on the top priority problem together using a process called Plan B, which is a formal, step-by-step collaborative process. I’m not going to explain the whole method or show you how to use it, as Dr. Greene’s Lives in the Balance website has lots of great resources to do that. Instead, I’ll share my own experience in CPS and how it changed my family.
CPS in My Family
I found the method, like most parents, when I was desperate for day-to-day help.
At that point, we were struggling to figure out how to get our kids to sleep, to eat, to go to school, to exist in a world with their siblings. I had already tried everything I could find. I had even tried to do everything harder. After all, when most of those methods fail, the prevailing opinion is that it is the parent who is failing to be strict enough or consistent enough.
I even tried things I knew wouldn’t work. I didn’t know it then, but what I was doing with the traditional behavioral methods was making things much worse. I was forcing my kids to mask, to pretend they were ok, to ignore their own feelings, and that what I wanted was more important than what they wanted. And the resultant mental health crises had us in the deepest pit I’d ever been in: alone, in the dark, and hopeless.
I knew we needed help, but I didn’t know what to do next. Someone suggested the classic CPS book, The Explosive Child, and I ignored it. Because I wasn’t ready. Then a few years later, at parent orientation for a summer camp designed for autistic kids, the book came up again.
The camp staff told parents that they wouldn’t force kids to shower. Forcing behavioral expectations wasn’t what summer camp was about, they said. Instead, they used the CPS method and attempted to figure out a solution with our kids. They were also clear that in case they couldn’t, they put a little soap in the mid-week slip-and-slide activity.
That was the first idea I’d heard that might actually work for my kids, and I picked up the book on the way home. I read it that day, and we started working on reframing our kid’s behaviors and letting go of what wasn’t important. That, in itself, helped.
Then we started using the plan B process to work through one concrete, specific, detailed, unsolved problem at a time.
Life Got Better
Moving from the broad worries and overarching catastrophizing to concentrating on one simple, small problem at a time actually worked! We racked up little successes on the issues that mattered. Problems felt a little more solvable, and suddenly there was hope.
For me, this stage felt like I was still swimming in an ocean with no land in sight, but now and then, when the waves were calm enough, I could tread water and lift my head up enough to breathe.
It was tempting to rest there. After all, it was so much better than before, and I was so tired. But, I kept at it and went back to the CPS method. Our “CPS muscles” got stronger, then I started to shift from surviving each crisis to being proactive about future goals. Instead of treading water, we started to actually swim. To make progress.
Empowerment over Authority
Eventually, we saw the real benefits of using CPS. Consulting with and using a collaborative process with our kids proved to them the value of their own voice and helped them implicitly build their own problem-solving skills.
Then, after a few years of using CPS, my children felt heard. They started to value themselves and their concerns, they started to trust me, and I started to feel like I deserved that trust. We were on the long road to repairing all the damage that traditional parenting/plan A had done.
Better than Just “Better”
Then came the day that they started to use the process on themselves. They even helped me when I was stuck on my own problems. That is when I realized that without explicitly “teaching” any skills or “forcing” them to do anything, and just by modeling the collaborative process and being patient enough to hold space so they could do things when they were ready, my kids had figured out their own way to float.
Now, instead of treading water and trying to carry their whole weight, we were carrying each other when someone needed an assist. I had someone to share struggles with, and they were invested in helping me stay afloat, too. Then I realized that there was something more important than just “better:”
The journey of figuring out how to survive together, watching them find a life that suits them and realizing that we could do that all together as a team.
When Perception, not Behavior, is The Problem
CPS helps you re-frame all those parenting disappointments and frustrations.
Then I started to realize how small my box was: my definition of success, my need to control and protect, my vision of their future path/goal, and my understanding of how humans work. Instead, I realized how beautiful neurodiversity is and that all of us do well when we can.
Humans aren’t perfect, and we can’t meet every expectation. That is the struggle of being human. But in that struggle is an opportunity for the kind of creativity, understanding, diversity, and flexibility that is the beauty of being human.
Autism Was Never The Problem
CPS helped me understand that it wasn’t autism or “refusal” or behavior or my kids that stood in the way, but me and our neurotypical focused society.
It was through CPS and adult autistic voices that I began to understand ableism, a concept internalized in most of us, that defines a human’s worth by what they can do and accomplish, which leaves out the idea that every human is worthy.
It was also through my CPS journey that I learned about the social theory of disability which posits that automatic disability is not inherently automatic but is largely a byproduct of living in a world that doesn’t accept and accommodate differences.
Right now during COVID-19, the merit of the social theory of disability is playing out in real time. Our neurodivergent kids’ difficulty in weathering in-person social situations, their comfort in routine and sameness, and their love of electronics might have been disabling* in the pre-pandemic world; however, during COVID-19, our neurotypical need for in-person social situations, for “new” things to do/see/try and our unfamiliarity with most electronic forums is OUR disability.
A More Inclusive Society Starts at Home
Building a truly inclusive society seems like an impossible task, but we can still start the process one at a time, in our families.
I wish, as parents, we could offer our kids, right now, a world in which Autism didn’t ever need to be considered a disability, but that would mean that people were accepting of what is different from the majority.
If you are paying any attention right now to the world, if you are autistic, or if you love or support someone who is, building an inclusive and accepting world seems like an overwhelming task. But we don’t have to create a perfect society to make things better. Learning about CPS and trying to practice it is one way you can start swimming in the right direction.
CPS works by shifting our focus from the big worries and goals and problems that get us stuck and overwhelmed, to the concrete and specific problems that are solvable. So, here are two pieces of concrete and specific advice for parents of neurodivergent kids.
1. Learn more about the CPS method. You can start by reading/listening to one of the four books: Explosive Child, Raising Human Beings, Lost at School, or Lost and Found. If that doesn’t work for you, then there are other ways to learn. Check out the free resources on the Lives in the Balance website.
2. Listen to Autistic Adults and be curious. We neurotypical parents of Autistic kids (or anyone trying to support Autistic kids) don’t have the natural knowledge to guess at what our kids are thinking or what they need or what they are capable of doing.
Recognizing that is key.
But then what? Listen to autistic adults, wherever you can. They aren’t your kid, but they have far more insights than we do, and their guesses are more likely to be helpful and relevant. And just as importantly, they can articulate what it feels like to be your kid, which will help you start to shift your perspective on behavior and neurodiversity.
Here is one concrete way to do that: an article from an adult autistic who explains firsthand what it felt like, as a child, to have their perspective misunderstood and dismissed. The article also offers examples of specific parenting responses that serve to invalidate a child’s experience so you can start to recognize when you do it. Essentially, the author makes the same case that CPS does: that the single biggest thing you can do for your neurodivergent kid is to listen to them and respect their concerns.
*I don’t believe that the word disability is a bad word, because without it we minimize how hard it is for some people to live in the current world. It is only bad if it is used to dismiss an individual’s capabilities or autonomy or to focus on changing who they are instead of helping them find accommodations in a world that isn’t set up for them.
By defining disability through the social disability model, it reframes the label from looking at someone as broken, to just understanding that who they are makes the world they currently live in more challenging than for the rest of us and still allows us to talk about additional supports or understanding that they might need.
**I’ve learned that Autism and diagnoses like ADHD are a natural part of neurodiversity, along with neurotypicality. I use both Autistic and neurodiverse/neurodivergent for my family, depending on the context.
- How Collaborative and Proactive Solutions Changed My Family - September 23, 2020