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Is your child difficult to motivate? Does your child have big emotions or difficulty communicating in the usual ways? I remember the long years when my Peter couldn’t talk, couldn’t hold a pencil, and didn’t want to play,  when his only sure motivator was food. To add to that, in his teen age years, as often happens, his emotions exploded with massive dysregulation due to OCD and anxiety. I used to think that the arts were only for other kids, less impacted with autism, or maybe savants. But I’m telling you, I was wrong. It turned out that the arts played and continue to play an important role in Peter’s development. The arts may actually be a part of the solution for your child as well.

How do you begin? How do you lay a foundation for creativity? I believe  that for our family, doing hours and hours of floortime laid the foundation. Now mind you, more often than not, Peter didn’t look like he enjoyed it; he looked like for all the world all he wanted to do was withdraw and be left alone. We doggedly proceeded as a matter of faith. During the long years Peter had almost no language, we did a lot of play centered around reenacting emotionally charged events that happened in Peter’s life with stuffed animals or an analogous theme, at first demonstrating a more adaptive reaction, then eventually as he got more and more into it, letting Peter create his own new endings. It wasn’t until years later that I asked Peter what he thought of those many hours of DIR, and he said he felt like “Cinderella at the ball.” (see Profectum.org for parent training resources, especially the new free “Parent Toolbox”)

Once Peter started using a Vantage, an icon- based augmentative communication device, we added the habit of journaling and reflecting. See this little icon?  I would carry it in my pocket. On walks or outings, I would pull it out, and ask Peter, “So what do you see? hear, touch, smell, taste? ” whatever made sense, depending on the experience.  Later in the day, I’d pull it out again or draw it in reflections, during bedtime prayers or in conversations with his dad, asking “so tell Dad what we did? or how did you feel about that?”, so he could enjoy the experience, savor it,  thoroughly all over again. We would reflect on negative experiences too to reprocess them. So Peter built his foundation of emotional self awareness, perspective-taking, and internal standards at the same time he built his language. In fact, I’d go so far as to say that he put in the hard work of learning language because it was so emotionally relevant to him to talk about both the bad and good times of his life.

If you want to see the steps laid out methodically for building this kind of foundation using floortime and reflections for a child with minimal language skills, they’re all in a book I wrote in 2012, entitled “Teaching Your Child with Love and Skill: a Guide for Parents and Other Educators of Children with Autism, including Moderate to Severe Autism,” published by JKP.

What has happened in the 5 years since then? I would say an explosion or revolution in development. What made that possible was Dr. Ricki, who introduced Peter and me to Darlene Hanson, a speech pathologist from REACH who introduced Peter to supported typing (http://www.reach.services). Supported typing is a topic for a future conference; for now let me just say it is a way to support the child in all areas, and as Peter recently put it, “Darlene snared my fleeting thoughts, enabling my thoughts to get out and stand on paper rather than scurry for cover.” Typing gave Peter the means to show what he knows, such that he was able to eventually transition to diploma tract. Even more importantly, typing allowed him to express himself and develop his creativity with the written word, with the efficiency, speed, and flexibility that icon-based AC could not provide.

His poetry today (see “My World as a Poemhttps://www.amazon.com/dp/1544634110/) is very much a development upon our old journaling habits- he writes about his daily experiences and inner life. It came providentially at the time his OCD and anxiety exploded, as often happens in the teen years. So Peter had an outlet for and a tool to handle his emotional dysregulation in writing. Creative writing has been critical for Peter to process and handle his big emotions, and conversely, because necessity is the mother of invention, the big emotions have been a  driving force behind the development of his creativity. The illustration shows how stress can trigger the amygdala (lower brain) to activate a fight or flight motor response, but the frontal lobes (upper brain) may learn, with nurturing and practice, to modulate that response, especially using creativity as a strategy.

 

 

 

 

Let me show you how this works in a real life example.

Two weeks ago, Peter developed a new OCD. He discovered an extra long rubberband, which he enjoyed stretching and plucking in the usual way. But then he started holding it between his teeth, letting the end dangle like a long string from his mouth. I didn’t want him to swallow it, nor look really odd to others. But first thing when he woke up in the morning, he started lunging for the drawer where he had placed the rubberband the night before.

I sat between Peter and the drawer.

“Peter, slow down! Is something driving you crazy?”

Peter tried to reach past me for the drawer, that crazy, driven OCD gleam in his eyes.

“Ok, calm down. Take a deep breath. That’s it. Come on, tell me what’s going on. How badly do you need to do this, on a scale of 1 to 5?”

Peter typed, “4+,” as he perseverated, “Rubber band! rubber band!”

“Remember Peter, if you feel that driven, this may be an OCD. If so, it’s probably telling you some false thought like, ‘If you don’t get that rubberband, you’ll explode.’ Right? Ok, how about we slow down a minute, and just talk about it first. So tell me, what’s so appealing about that rubberband? What would you do with it, if you could get to that drawer?” Peter started typing about all the great qualities of a rubberband. Always fun to think about a compulsion. After he got his thoughts down, I suggested we play around and divide the thoughts into short lines of verse. We picked out the most vivid vocabulary,   made lists of words that rhymed with them, then rewrote the corresponding lines to get the rhymes  in at the end. After one stanza, I asked another question,

“But what’s the down-side of holding that rubberband in your mouth?” We brought in a little perspective-taking and reasoning as Peter repeated the process of getting down his thoughts, then organized them into the structure of poetic form. At this point, he was already into the rhythm of the game, and willing to continue, thereby almost unconsciously beginning the process of resisting the OCD. By the time we finished the second stanza, Peter’s upper brain was now engaged, warmed up, and had come to the conclusion that cons outweighed the pros and that longing for the rubberband did not make sense and therefore must be a compulsion. So finally I asked, “So Peter, you have a choice. If this is really an OCD, what does Dr. Gwen say to do? That’s right, take a baby step away. What are your strategies? That’s it, put it away and distract, or if that’s too hard, turn the mad dog into a sled dog and use the compulsion as a reward. (We often picture OCD as a big dog companion that Peter has to learn to live with, so we use that image of harnessing the motivation of a compulsion to get work done a lot.) What do you think you can manage?”  We repeated the same process of writing, dividing thoughts into verse lines, creating rhyming lists, and editing.  Here’s Peter’s finished product:

Rubberband, rubberband, elastic and round,

Rubberband, rubberband, sing your song.

“Boing,” stretch, dangle, and pull,

I can’t seem to get enough “boing!” to the full.

 

But holding it between my teeth,

Is not a thing to really eat.

OCD, the very picture I look,

Dangling like a fish on the hook.

 

So instead of keeping you in my head,

I’ll use you to get out of bed.

Mom, put it in my bathroom cup.

I’ll chase it there, and thus get up.

“So, Peter, did you enjoy writing your poem?”  I could see it in his face, the relaxation of the muscles, the crazy, driven gleam diminished from his eyes.

“Yes,” he typed.

“How did your stress level fare?” We use an emotional thermometer, scaled 0-5.

“From 4+ to 3+.”

“So how powerful is your creative power?”

“Very.”

There’s an addendum to this story. Once Peter put his plan into action, and got out of bed, I lined up his soap, toothbrush, and mouthwash in a row, putting the cup with the rubberband in it at the very end, so he had to go through the sequence of his self-help tasks first to get it. By that time, so much time had passed, that he was at a different place in the compulsion wave. It was passing, not totally, but he was at a better point. So it was time for another negotiation.

“Peter, how long do you think you should get the rubberband? You don’t want to lose all the ground you’ve gained, so it probably shouldn’t be too long.”

“Ten minutes,” he replied.

“That seems a bit long to me. How about you keep it as long as you don’t put it in your mouth. If you do, I take it away.”

Peter thought a moment, then abruptly took the rubber band out of the cup and placed it back in his drawer and walked away to the kitchen for breakfast.

So rather than lose control of the rubberband, he decided to hide the visual trigger and not engage in the compulsion at all. It was the best possible outcome. Peter’s choice, to carry out his own initiative, a strategy he came up with himself, that did not carry out the compulsion and therefore not reinforce it or strengthen that OCD circuit in any way, all while exercising his frontal lobes and strengthening his brain connections top to bottom (point to first stanza, slowing down the reactivity), left to right (bringing in reason), so executive function could come online (point to third stanza). You could just watch those synapses grow, and watch the development of emotional regulation.

So my question to you is, could there possibly be anything more therapeutic than the arts? With the arts, the child has a positive means to channel and let go of all the anguish inside, to fully express, understand, and process his emotions, positive and negative. Those brain glitches may be companions our children have to live with the rest of their lives; how much healthier it would be to learn to accept, channel, and transform negative emotion, rather than simply try to squelch it all the time. This is by cartoonist Matthew Inman. Peter and I love this image, which has become our modus operandi for dealing with emotional dysregulation.

dong-combat-your-monsters.jpg
M. Inman

 

 

 

That’s one of the most important lessons Peter and I learned from DIR. Negative emotions are not all bad. We can learn not to be afraid of nor to  make an enemy of those big emotions. They can serve as powerful motivators for development.

 

 

 

 

I encourage all of you to explore the arts as the integrating and transforming channel that may turn emotional challenges into the development of emotional regulation, creativity, self-awareness, and self-esteem. And to make something potentially beautiful and enlightening for others in the process. With art, you can be yourself, at your own pace, and there are no restrictions or disabilities in the imagination. It can’t get much better than that.

Don’t take my word for it. Peter wrote this poem, revealing how the arts have transformed his life. (The poem is symmetrical, with the last four stanzas corresponding to the first four in reverse order.)

I am autistic,
Greedy eyes and ears,
Wet in the rain of sensory deluge.

I’ve been a prisoner,
Captured in silence,
Voiceless and unintelligible.

I’ve been a slave,
Strapped to my obsessions
Ordering me to do nonsense, perverse to my character.

I’ve been a paralytic,
Feet stuck to the street,
People swirling around me.

I’m a listener,
Watching and receiving
Like a peaceful tree. 

I’m a tiger tamer,
Harnessing  the energy of my compulsions
To write one more line.

I’m an escapee,
Flying my soul like a kite
On a string of words.

I’m a poet,
Exploring the world with keen senses,
Sharing with you a bite of fresh air.

1 Samuel 16:7

“Joyce, my daughter feels so dumb. She used to think she was ok, but after a year in this honors program at USC, she feels like she’s surrounded by geniuses. She cried and cried. She feels completely inadequate. I told her it was okay, but my heart was breaking to see her feeling that way.”

Wow, did that conversation ever bring back a flood of memories for me. I told my other-mom-friend that boy, could I relate to her daughter’s feeling, after 8 years at Harvard (4 in the college, 4 in the med school). I used to have nightmares about being in genetics seminar and not having the faintest idea what everyone was talking about, or making it all the way to the end of the semester with barely a shred of understanding to get through my advanced biochemical thermodynamics final exam. I recalled all the one-ups-man-ship going on during rounds as a medical resident, the constant tearing down and clawing up I observed on a regular basis.

By contrast I thought of a story St. John Paul II (Karol Wojtyla), one of the most popular popes in modern history, used to tell. During the terrible Nazi occupation of Poland, working as a delivery boy and quarry worker, he was greatly helped and guided by an unassuming man named Jan Leopold Tyranowski.  Tyranowski was a tailor who served as a spiritual mentor in a discipleship program called the Living Rosary, created to support Polish youth in their Catholic faith during the tumultuous war years.  Karol would always remember the humble tailor’s teaching on suffering and how it can draw us closer to God. After becoming pope, he wrote how Tyranowski was “one of those unknown saints, hidden like a marvelous light at the bottom of life, at a depth where night usually reigns.”

And I thought of Peter, the child of my heart who can’t talk, can’t get his body to move where he wants to go half the time, but wrote yesterday, “I fly my soul like a kite at the end of a string of words.” Peter has completely changed me. It’s as if he removed the blinds from my eyes to see what’s really important about a person and a person’s life. It’s not the externals, the wealth, popularity, looks, or even “accomplishment” that makes a person precious and sacred, that’s for sure. It’s the soul within. The one who cares, feels, values, decides, and tries. And that has little to do even with intelligence, social skills, or praxis. The inner seat lies even deeper than that.

“It’s ok, Myra, it really is. Tell her that she and her friends are all plenty smart enough to do a lot of good. How smart you are, how high you can jump, how fast you can run, are gifts from God, why should anyone boast about it? God cares about what you do with your gifts, because that shows what’s in here,” I said, pointing to her heart. “Just put your arms around her, and tell her with all you heart and mean it, “The rest really matters not at all.”

The refrigerator door stood open, as Peter hesitated. He handed me the chicken, then snatched it back and put it into the refrigerator, while handing me the fish. Then it was the leftover rice in the pot with an abrupt switch to the leftover rice in the tupperware box. He finally handed me something he wouldn’t even eat after I microwaved it, but instead ran into the family room. He turned on the TV, then quickly positioned a chair facing the corner, back to the TV. He ran down the hall to his little brother Luke’s room, and returned with one of the boxes Luke stores Pokemon cards in (cards emptied out), and started tapping and turning it. I firmly took the box out of Peter’s hands and hid it under the sofa.

“Peter, slow down! What’s going on?”

Peter’s eyes burned as he reached for the box and gasped, “Bok, bok!” (for “box, box”)

“Ok, calm down. Take a deep breath. That’s it. Come on, tell me what’s going on. So what happened there at the refrigerator? Can you write about it?” As Peter started squeezing my hands, I said, “You will get that box. But first let’s put some brakes on this. Remember, when you have an intense OCD, what does Dr. Gwen tell us we can do to delay it?”

Peter typed, “I can harness this sled dog. I can let myself have the box if I finish.”

I told him that was a great idea. If only he would write down his thoughts about what was going on at the refrigerator, then with the chair, then with the hand squeezing. Knowing he loves poetry, after he finished that, I gave him the challenge of putting it into verse, and adding rhymes. After he completed each stanza, I asked him to rate his OCD intensity as higher, same, or lower. I kept hoping he would say “lower” as writing bided time for us. Unfortunately, he kept saying “Same.” I tried to make the best of it, “Hey, you see, it’s not getting worse!” Here are Peter’s first three stanzas (English sonnet form abab, cdcd, efef).

Give me chicken, no let’s not.

Give me fish, no, another mistake.

First the rice in the box, not it’s the rice in the pot.

OCD picks the one thing I hate.

 

The chair in the corner is where I must sit,

Facing away so I can’t see the TV.

It doesn’t make sense, not even a bit.

No matter, OCD’s punishing me.

 

I’m squeezing your hand to wring out my pain.

Give me the box you put under.

I’m taking deep breaths but still going insane.

OCD rips and tears me asunder.

 

Finally after the third stanza,  I asked Peter to rate his OCD. He typed,

“The box compulsion is surprisingly better,

As I delayed it while writing this letter.”

(That couplet completed the 14 lines of an English sonnet.)

“Wow, Peter!” I exclaimed, look at that! See how strong your creativity is!

Peter typed, “Strong enough to resist a 5/5 compulsion.” All lit up, he said with a big smile and gesture, “Bok, peez!”

“At this point, you have definitely earned that box several times over. But I want to know what you, Peter Tran, upper brain, really want to do now. Because OCD has been bossing you around all night and made you pick something you didn’t like out of the refrigerator and sit in a punishing corner. Wouldn’t you just love to slug OCD back one more time? Why not eat a piece of delicious piece of pizza first for dinner, and then get the box?”

I held my breath. I truly was totally prepared to let Peter take the box from under the sofa. Instead, he did something remarkable. He stood up and slowly walked to the kitchen. At one point he stopped, and started to turn back, but I positioned myself between his body and the sofa. Smilingly I encouraged him, “You are doing great, Peter.”

Peter turned abruptly back to the kitchen and headed through the door.

I’m sharing this story because I want to encourage you kids suffering from OCD and you parents trying to help your children deal with it. It may not be possible to completely change the wiring glitch that causes OCD, but you can build up the attention shifting and compulsion inhibition skills required to achieve a long enough delay for the compulsion wave to wane, and the frontal lobe engagement to move that broken record on a different track. Use deep breathing and the hope of eventually getting to do the compulsion to create some relief from anxiety. Help your child to recognize that it’s the intrusive thoughts of OCD, not his own, that are making him feel he needs to do something that doesn’t make sense. Distract him, help him shift attention away by engaging the upper brain/frontal lobes into an exercise you know he likes (In this case, I know Peter loves to write). Support him to initiate a strategy like delay that you’ve talked about together beforehand, and to self-monitor his state of being so he can watch the intensity of the compulsion fall and be encouraged by his own success. Doing something creative is especially powerful and rewarding because the child can create his own ending to the story; if he pretends to be successful, chances are greater he will become successful by being able to process what’s happening and envision a positive ending. Be transparent in your coaching, and tell your child what you are doing and thinking so that he can understand, want to cooperate with, and imitate it. It’s a goal for him to learn how to talk to himself in the same way. Most importantly, signpost his accomplishment. Be the banner bearer of his success. As Dr. Gwen tells us, the one thing that equips your child best to combat intrusive thoughts is the realization that “I can do this. I do have a choice.” That self concept and self esteem is built through accomplishment. So whatever progress your child makes, whatever small step in the right direction he is able to accomplish, even a baby step, proclaim it and rejoice! Developing emotional regulation is a slow process, but with each victory, another inhibitory or attention shifting synapse is born.

Admonition by Dr. Gwen Palafox, illustrated by Clarissa Kano

A very cool thing happened this weekend.

 

My youngest, Luke, was in tears, disappointed because he couldn’t talk Dad into taking him to a Pokemon tournament. He was supposed to have earned the privilege by working on his science project, but had displayed, shall we say, a less-than-optimal attitude about it. So Dad said no. Here’s the conversation that ensued between  Peter and Luke.

 

Peter: Hi luke, sporry about the tournament. You had yyour hopes up. Perhaps next time you can use a point system. It really helps. Just don’t give up.
Luke: It doesn’t matter anymore.
Peter: It does matter. But you vcan’t give up.
Luke: Too late. Nothing to work for anymore.  I’ve already given up.
Peter: That’s blackmail.
Luke: How is that blackmail?
Peter: You are telljng everyone if you can’tg have your way, you won’t try.

Luke: But that was the last big city tournament. I don’t have anything to work for.

Peter: Then keep trying to be better for God.
Luke : What does that mean?
Peter: You live for yourself or for God. Just open your heart. Live abundantly. It is more to live for others.
Luke: What does that mean?
Peter: Like studying to be useful.  you are so smart.
Luke: I still don’t get it.
Mom: I think he means that you should continue to try hard to study well so you can gain the skills to become useful to society and others someday. Is that it, Peter?
Peter: yes.
Luke: Mom, are you on my side?
Mom: I’m always on your side.
Luke: That’s good.
Mom: In this case, I believe being on your side is agreeing with your brother. He’s your big brother and is giving you good advice.

 

Well, Luke went off to walk to church, and Peter and I prayed for him. When he came back, he was genuinely okay. He approached Dad and actually asked to talk about why Dad had thought he had a bad attitude, and what he could do differently next time (believe me, these were simple things, like staying for the whole experiment). Luke actually listened  instead of constantly interrupting and protesting, and then he nodded and was all right. For impatient, explosive Luke, this was a remarkable milestone.

But a milestone for both boys. Luke was always the sheepdog for Peter as they grew up, buzzing and circling ’round, and coming back to report to me when Peter needed help. And now look! As big brothers do and sometimes as only big brothers can do, he challenged Luke to be better, and Luke rose up to it!

I stood by observing all this in joy and amazement. How many times have I despaired of making headway to help Luke improve on his temper and tolerance for frustration? And who would have guessed in all those years of silence before Peter could type, that he would one day be the one to provide the words of encouragement Luke needed to hear at this critical moment.

There’s a terrific app called “Saint A Day.” Wouldn’t you know it, but the saint for that day was St. Andrew Corsini, a 14th century Italian. Before he was born, his mother dreamt that she gave birth to a wolf, who went into a church, and changed into a lamb. Later, when Andrew grew into an out-of-control young man, his mother told him he was the wolf she dreamt about. Andrew went into a Carmelite church to pray, and felt inspired to change his life. He became a famous Carmelite priest and peacemaker. The mini-homily at the end of the story went like this, “We can be peacemakers just like St. Andrew. When we treat people with love and respect, we are spreading peace. When we forgive those who have hurt us, we are spreading peace. When we try to cheer up people who are sad, we are spreading peace.”

To me that day Luke was the wolf who changed into a lamb, and Peter was the peacemaker. Thank you, Lord, for you find a way where there is no way, and your solutions are the best, most unexpected, and most beautiful.

Wishing you all also a most blessed and happy New Year!

CartoonDealer.com

Peter was having a tough battle with his OCD this season, repeatedly asking for “Target,” to buy swim goggles or gift cards that he would promptly cut up or break. I tried to help him by delaying doing the compulsion, and turning it into a reward that he could work toward by earning points doing good things (like homework problems, swim laps, or chores). What was really neat was how Peter decided to use his hard-earned points not for going to Target to buy goggles, but to buy his big brother a Secret Santa gift. What follows is the poem Peter wrote to his brother to accompany the present.

Goggles vs Gifts

I want to go to  Target
As the earth goes round the sun,
Like eating Lays Potato Chips,
You cannot eat just one.

I love the stacks of goggles.
Orange, pink,and green.
I love the cups at Starbucks there
With the shiny, thermal, sheen.

Marking pens of rainbow hues,
Chips and snacks galore,
Gift cards crisp and nice to tear
From any local store.

If I could go to Target,
I’d see that bull’s eye red.
I’d walk right in, and see the bins
and the escalator ahead.

Up I’d go, it’s quite a show
Of Christmas goods and cheer.
Children running round my feet,
My arm ’round mother dear.

I’d stride right to the goggles
And pick a perfect blue,
But then I’d think, OCD you stink,
I don’t need something new.

Christmas isn’t for buying,
Though I like the fun and mirth,
But to celebrate God’s gift to us,
To rejoice at our Savior’s birth.

So instead of spending points I’ve earned
On goggles I don’t need,
I’ll spend them on a gift for you,
A Secret Santa deed.

In my heart, I gladly part
With goggle-y, worldly wealth,
To offer to my Savior
A better master of myself.

Merry Christmas, all!

snoopy

Proposition 62 proposes to end the death penalty in California. The death penalty is when the state executes a person for committing a capital crime, like premeditated murder. Instead everyone already sentenced would get life imprisonment without possibility of parole, which is when you get out of jail early for good behavior under supervision. Current California law generally requires that inmates work, and that part of their earnings go toward restitution of the victim, or in the case of homicide, the victim’s family. The bill increases the percentage that may be taken from the inmate’s wages from 50% to 60% to give to the victim’s family. This proposition came about for moral and financial reasons. What is the history of the death penalty, what is the scope of the problem, what are the moral and financial arguments for and against it, and what should we do?

In 1972, 40 states plus the District of Columbia had death penalties. The Supreme Court struck them  down because they were arbitrarily and capriciously applied. Thirty five states created new death penalty laws, but in 1976, the Supreme Court struck down the ones that made the death penalty mandatory for any capital crime. But if judges and juries use their discretion, weighing the variables in each individual case, the ruling does allow them to apply the death penalty (Lincoln, 2016). In 2002, the Supreme Court ruled that the execution of mentally retarded defendants violates the Eighth Amendment’s ban on cruel and unusual punishment. In 2005, the Supreme Court ruled that the execution of juvenile killers is unconstitutional. On November 6th, 2012, an attempt to repeal death penalty in California failed (CNN, 2016).

Worldwide, 140 countries have abolished the death penalty since 1976, when the US Supreme Court revived it. In 2010, the US ranked fifth in executions behind China, Iran, Pakistan, and Saudi Arabia.  Nationwide, of 8,124 people sentenced to death between 1977-2013, only 17% were executed, 6% died of other causes, 40% got other dispositions including acquittals, and 37% remain in prison (Lincoln, 2016). In California since 1978, an even lower percentage of convicts who get the death penalty get executed, and an even higher percentage sit solitary in cells waiting to be told if they will live or die. Of 930 individuals who have been convicted, only 15 have been  executed, 103 died of other causes, 64 sentences have been reduced, and 748 are in appeals. Of those 748, two fifths have been on death row for more than 20 years. California spends $55 million annually just on the cost of appeals (Padilla, 2016).

Does the death penalty make any sense? Overall, the cost of execution is eight times higher than keeping an inmate in life imprisonment because of the huge costs of a sentencing trial, which is an extra trial required above and beyond the trial that determines guilt vs innocence, appeals, and extra security (Prejean, 1993). Yet even with the high dollar amount, injustices abound. 120 people sentenced to die have been exonerated (USCCB, 2005). The death penalty is applied to a tiny fraction of homicide convictions. The chances of getting the death penalty does not correspond most highly with how bad or heinous the crime.  Instead your  chances of getting the death penalty for a capital crime are much higher if you’re poor, black, or if you live in a southern state like Texas or Oklahoma (USCCB, 2005; Lincoln, 2016). The quality of court appointed attorneys for the defense can be poor. Federal appeals courts find constitutional errors in the proceedings in 40% of cases reviewed (Prejean, 1993). Finally, the death penalty does not seem to serve as the deterrent to homicide as it was meant to be. There is no difference in capital crime rates in states that have more executions (USCCB, 2005).

So are there any good reasons for the death penalty? One big problem with life imprisonment is the possibility of parole. 71.3% of violent offenders are rearrested within the five years after release from prison (Bureau of Justice Statistics, 2005), and in 1997, a third of prison admissions were from parole violators (BJS, 1999). The alternative to the death penalty would have to be life imprisonment without possibility of parole to protect the public’s safety.

How about the families of the victims? More and more victims’ families are telling us that the execution of the offender does not give them peace.

“No one in our family ever wanted to see the killer of our brother and his wife put to death. We felt instinctively that vengeance wouldn’t alleviate our grief. We wanted this murderer in prison so he could never hurt another person. But wishing he would suffer and die would only have diminished us and shriveled our own souls. Hatred doesn’t heal. Every time the state kills a person, human society moves in the direction of its lowest, most base urges. We don’t have to make that choice. Our lawmakers have the capacity to help us abolish the death penalty and along with it, the fantasy that it will make the pain go away.”

—Mary Bosco Van Valkenburg for her mother, Antoinette Bosco, sister Margaret Minier, and brothers Frank and Paul Bosco (USCCB, 2005)

So the death penalty doesn’t work in terms of costs to the state, nor as a deterrent to crime. Injustices abound in terms of who gets the dearth penalty, and corruption exists in the granting of pardons (Prejean, 1993). Then there’s the moral question. Should the state, in the name of all of us, ever put someone to death when there is even a small chance of killing an innocent person, when we can protect the public’s safety with the alternative of life imprisonment without parole? Even if the convict is guilty, do we have the right to cut off any chance that he/she may repent and do good in the future?  In “Dead Man Walking,” Sister Helen Prejean tells her journey of going through the whole process of appeals and the execution of a man convicted of murder as his spiritual adviser. Two brothers, Pat and Eddie, kill two teenagers in the woods. The older brother, Pat takes the blame though his younger brother, Eddie, did the killing, so Pat gets the death sentence. In the end, Sister Helen leads Pat to apologize to the victim’s family, befriends the father of one of the victims who ultimately heroically accepts the apology, and counsels Eddie, who is in life imprisonment as an accomplice. Even Eddie, laden with guilt over causing the deaths of three people, including his own brother, finds a measure of peace by working hard to give part of his earnings as a token of restitution to the victims’ families. Her description of the execution puts into question if any of us would want to be responsible for yet another death. The miracle is that grace can penetrate even the darkest of situations, like the exchange between Pat and the victim’s father, and how even Eddie improved. I believe that mercy and forgiveness, with life imprisonment without parole to keep the public safe, is a much better alternative than the death penalty.

I urge everyone to vote “yes” on Proposition 62 and “no” on 66.

 

edited by Joyce Tran

References

  1. Alex Padilla, (Nov 8, 2016) “Official Voter Info Guide for CA General Election.”
  2. CNN library, updated 10/24/16, “Death Penalty Fast Facts”, CNN.com
  3. Fay, William, Msg. and the US Conference of Catholic Bishops, Dec. 2005, “Culture of Life and the Penalty of  Death.” Washington DC, USCCB.org,
  4. Lincoln, Alan, “Death Throes: Changing How America Thinks About Capital Punishment,”Harvard Magazine, volume 119, no. 2 , Nov-Dec 2016.pp. 56-95
  5. National Institute of Justice, Bureau of Justice Statistics, nij.gov
  6. Prejean, Helen, C.S.J. (1993) “Dead Man Walking” New York: Random House.

Dealing with Anxiety

Here’s an article many of us can relate to about a mom’s experience chasing after her preteen son as he exploded with anxiety: https://medium.com/@awsamuel/an-open-letter-to-the-police-officer-who-helped-my-autistic-son-5ebb51478cc0#.jkt6fycti

Overwhelming anxiety is a common problem with our kids. How do we help them in these acute situations when all their instincts tell them to bolt?

Peter wrote this a year ago, after getting through such an experience.

(After reading it, please share your experience and advice too!)

Heart racing, breathing fast, palms sweaty,

head full, like a can of soda shaken up,

I’m ready to explode.

I can seemingly hold together,

but I’m like a Leggo man,

falling into pieces.

One light tap,

I’m lost.

 

This is a poem I wrote to calm myself down recently while I was waiting to get my blood drawn at the doctor’s office.  It’s a description of what anxiety is like. Anxiety is the overwhelming feeling that affects many people, both neurotypical and autistic. I have lived with it ever since I can remember.

The cause of anxiety is a normal reaction to threats gone awry. The lower brain has a structure called the amygdala. It is responsible for the reaction to threats and danger that is  supposed to help you survive. Your heart rate goes up, your breathing gets fast, and your mental alertness goes way up, which is called being hyperaroused or hypervigilant. That way your body is ready to flee or fight danger. That is the emotion of fear or anger, respectively. I don’t know why the amygdala chooses fear versus anger, but anxiety is the fear.

The problem is, my anxiety gets triggered too easily with threats that aren’t really threats. When I was little, I remember Mom telling me  all the time not to be afraid. I would curl up into a ball on the pavement of a crowded street, hoping to hide from too much busyness. Mom would have to play games with me to get me to go to new places. I remember her having me look for things, like “Go touch a pumpkin,” “See if you can count ten of them,” or “Find the chicken, next the pig,” to get me deeper into a pumpkin farm and away from the entrance. Finally we jumped aboard a tractor for a hayride that I loved. Going to new places should have gotten easier with each success, but we still have to work on it.

There are several strategies that have helped me the most to cope with anxiety. These are illustrated in a blood drawing experience, which I’ll go through step by step.

For days before my appointment, Mom talked to me about how my doctors needed this or that blood test, so I understood why it was important to get my blood drawn. My upper brain was completely on board and partners in the mission. I needed to know what to expect. Mom took me to visit Kirby, who is a nice, friendly phlebotomist, so I could see what phlebotomists are like and what they do. I even sat in the chair where he draws blood, though I didn’t want him to try.

On the morning of my appointment, I got up a bit late, but in the car Mom gave me a nice breakfast. It’s important not be hungry. She brought this cute stuffed dog she said was scared, that I needed to calm down and draw its blood. So my tutor Belinda had me practice with a real tourniquet, needle, and tubes. She explained that when the blood goes into the tube, you shout, “Success!” She even had me wrap up the dog in her sweater to comfort it. Mom asked me if I wanted to get a vaccination done at the same time after the blood draw to get it over with. I thought that would be a good idea because vaccines keep you healthy.

I met my new doctor, Dr. Larsen. At the end of my appointment, Dr. Larsen recommended a vaccination. He looked sternly at Mom like she should insist, but Mom looked at me, and asked me again. I assented. I appreciated getting to make my own decision.

After the doctor left, there was a long wait before the phlebotomy team came into the room. I was getting more and more anxious. Mom tried to distract me by reading funny poems because I love poetry, but I kept turning off the iPad because I was too anxious to enjoy them. I wrote the poem above, and it made me feel a bit better to express myself. Otherwise, I think I would have run away.

After a long wait, three people came in. One was huge, another carried a tray I knew had needles on it, though she tried covering it up. Fear seized me, my heart started pounding, and I got up to run away. I heard Mom say, “Calm down, Peter, take a deep breath,” but I didn’t care. I saw them put on their purple gloves. I felt they were ganging up on me. I said, “Pee pee” and headed for the door, but Mom caught me and said I could go after blood drawing. I didn’t really need to go, but it was worth a try. Then Dr. Larsen poked his head in and asked how it was going. The leader, who had introduced herself as Wendy said, “Not yet, there might be too many people in the room.” She sent everyone away except Mom and the giant. That was a relief!

Then Mom asked if I wanted to be folded up in the sheet like my dog. I said, “Yes.” I felt safer in the sheet, because my actions didn’t require so much effort to control. Mom put on the tourniquet. Ben, the giant, gave me a big bear hug. That helped prevent lower brain from getting any crazy ideas to escape. Mom and I started counting. The needle went in, but I barely felt it. Mom took the tourniquet off and loosened her grip so the blood would go in the tubes. When I saw the blood, I thought “Success!” I didn’t even realize it, but Mom told me later she wasn’t even controlling my arm at that point. I was holding still on my own. When Wendy said, “All done,” I felt relieved. Mom said, “You did it!” I was very proud.

Mom asked if I still wanted the vaccination. I surprised her and said “Yes.” Ben showed me pictures of his four kids, one only 3 months old. By then my stress level had fallen to a 2 out of a 5 point scale. I felt relieved that the worst was over. And the worst really wasn’t that bad.

I got the vaccination as easy as a blink of the eye. Then I thanked Ben. I said, “Thank you, Ben, for keeping me safe.” He said, “Oh my God!” and put his head down. I felt so grateful my adventure was done, and grateful it was successful.

I left! I realize fear is the worst part, and that blood drawing is a small annoyance. Next time I’ll tell “panic dog” to remember our success and relax. Kind of doubt it will be that easy though.

These are the principles behind what we did. Explanation and rehearsal got the upper brain on board. I understood why I needed the tests. I had practiced with visiting Kirby and with the stuffed dog, so I knew what to expect. Getting to switch roles and be the phlebotomist helped decrease my fear of the phlebotomist, and taught me words I could use to soothe myself later, though I forgot them this time. Writing poetry helped because it let me express my feelings in words instead of exploding. For most people. it makes you feel better to talk.

It was important to take a bottoms-up approach too. I’m glad I had a good breakfast. I would have had too much to handle if I was also hungry. It was great to get to see Ben’s family pictures because relationships count for a lot. I couldn’t have held together without Mom being there.

Finally I want to talk about how there is a balance in applying physical restraint. When a lot of people entered the room I felt threatened, like I was being cornered. Later when the phlebotomist wanted me to hold still for the blood draw, it would have been too hard to do on my own. The wrap, Ben, and Mom kind of held me together. If they had been harsh though, It would have made me more anxious, and I would have run away. So you have to be firm, but very nice. Then the anxious person can trust you and feel safe.

The next week I went to the dentist. I felt very anxious and wanted to flee. but Mom held onto me from behind as I wouldn’t sit in the dental chair. That felt warm and snug like a hug. Also she counted again which is great. It’s too hard to live with anxiety forever, but you can stand it if there’s a time limit. So be sure to count backwards.

In the future, I might do better. I have a sleep study coming up where I will have to try to tolerate electrodes on my head and legs. I can prepare for it by watching videos on Youtube to see what sleep studies are like. I can say to myself that there’s nothing harmful or painful about the test. I had a similar test when I was little. I remember having things stuck on my head, and wearing a box around my waist. It went okay. It didn’t hurt, though the electrodes were annoying. Mom will be with me, so we can get through it together. We got through the blood draw, and I didn’t think it was so bad after all.

I learned some important things about myself from these skirmishes with anxiety. The phlebotomy team is made of nice people. I was especially happy to have the opportunity to encourage Ben. So sometimes stressful circumstances can lead to some good. I learned that I’ve grown. I didn’t fall apart. I could use my upper brain to think of getting away by asking to use the bathroom. But even better, I was able to breathe and listen to Mom’s words of reason and truth. I can trust her, and the rest of my team. i realize I am becoming resilient. Not a Leggo man at all.

by Peter Tran