Wednesday, April 15, 2015

Day 15: Acceptance is Support

Ben is learning to separate his emotions from events- like traffic.

It’s hard to believe we’re halfway through the month of April.  That means I’m halfway through my goal of writing a post a day for Autism Acceptance Month.

It hasn’t been easy but I’ve enjoyed this reflective writing time in the evening.  I hope you’ve enjoyed reading along with me.

This evening I attended a parent workshop at the place where Ben attends private OT.  The facilitator of the workshop is a behavior specialist for a neighboring school district.  As he said at the start of our hour together, behavior specialists and OTs often operate as separate entities but occasionally you will find those who are open minded enough to work to bridge the gap between the two disciplines.

In case you don’t know this about me already, I love learning, so I was pretty fascinated as I listened to him talk tonight.

My purpose for attending the meeting was not to change Ben’s “problem” behaviors.  It's like the saying goes, "My child is not giving me a hard time.  My child is having a hard time."  I believe that all behavior is communication.  I also believe in creating rules and guidelines.  Luckily, Ben likes knowing the rules and, when he understands an expectation clearly, he tries to comply.  Ben’s biggest struggle is his emotional reactions to the world.  Things that would appear to be “little problems” to most of us become huge in his eyes.  And so, yes, Ben struggles with handling his big emotions which can transfer into behaviors that need to change in order for him to function more independently (and happily) in this world. 

The other thing that I have been reflecting on with Ben lately is the amount of support he requires to complete certain tasks on his own.  If my ultimate goal for him is to become a confident, independent, self-sufficient learner, the nagging question on my mind is where the line is between support and enabling.

So back to tonight’s meeting. 

The presenter talked about the importance of teaching our children to self-monitor their behavior.   It is important for an adult, whether it is a parent or a teacher, to track the behavior in order to look for patterns and establish the cause or trigger of behaviors as best we can, but if we want to teach our children independence (which of course we do), we must teach them how to become aware of their behavior and how the choices they make impact them either in positive or negative ways.

Behavior must be taught.  We cannot assume that a student will know how to behave appropriately unless we explicitly tell them our expectations and practice what appropriate behavior looks like.

He also talked about the concept of time and how this is very nebulous to kids.   This immediately made me think of Ben and how lately he is always asking questions related to time.  How many minutes to get from school to the Skyway Bridge or how many minutes until it’s time to read books or how many days until summer.  I think he’s teaching himself the concept of time through the things that make the most sense to him in his world.  For kids, behavior has be approached through short-term outcomes, because long-term goals are too nebulous for them.  I do believe, however, that with Ben's mathematical mind, he understands the concept of time better than the average child.  

The presenter talked about a lot of other fascinating concepts, but the statement that struck me the most was what he said at the end.  He said that “we must teach children to separate their emotions from their actions.”  He could have been talking about Ben when he said, "when we have a child who is excessively sensitive, we must acknowledge this sensitivity, but we must also learn to help them learn to deal with it so that they can function in life."

Too often, our children get stuck on their emotions.  He explained that we are wired from birth to cry when we need our basic needs met.  Infants learn early on that when they cry, they are fed or changed or cuddled.  And so, in a very short while, children learn that their emotions (hunger, anger, sadness) leads to a positive response from loved ones in their life.  Over time, most children learn to separate their emotions from their actions.  Most learn that even if they feel angry, they cannot hit Mommy.  However, for some children, the emotions and actions are fused.  Ben is (thankfully) not a physically aggressive child but he is an emotional child.  He projects emotion onto things that are fixed and becomes upset by things that cannot be changed. 

For example, on the ride home he said, “I’m angry about traffic.”

I answered, “Buddy, I don’t like traffic either, but being angry isn’t going to change the traffic.  The traffic will still be here whether we are angry or not.” 

He must have though I didn't want him to be angry, so he said, “I’m happy about traffic.”

I said, “It’s okay to be angry about traffic.  No one likes traffic.  You just have to learn how to handle your anger.  You have to do other things, like listen to music or play your iPad while you wait.”

I know that teaching this concept will not be easy.  It’s going to take lots of conversations like these to help him understand how to separate his emotions from his actions or actions happening around him.  I certainly know plenty of adults that still struggle with this (such as the man honking his horn loudly behind me to GO at the stoplight).   Ben laughed so hard when I pointed out that even grown ups have trouble controlling their emotions at times.  The idea seemed completely ludicrous to him.

And so I’m still finding the balance between being a support but not supporting too much.  I’m striving to always keep the end goal in mind- a confident, happy, independent person. 

I will always be Ben's cheerleader and his biggest fan.

I accept Ben for the person who is while working to help him learn strategies to navigate this life more skillfully.  One of those strategies is how to handle his emotions.

My hope is one day I can be cheering from the passenger seat as he takes the wheel for himself and learns to steer confidently through life, even if there’s traffic.

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