Have you ever seen the wonderful film, “Awakenings” with Robin Williams? It’s a dramatization of the experience of a doctor working with patients who had catatonia. He got them to move by providing all kinds of visual and behavioral supports. In one line, a nurse comments how she feels the patient who will only ambulate with her is “borrowing her energy.” That really resounds with my own experience with Peter. He knows how to type, but will only type with specific people.
Here’s a conversation we had the other day, talking about a recent Christmas party.
Mom: Did you like talking with our friends the McNicolls through typing?
Mom: But I heard from Mr. McNicoll that you stopped typing soon after I left. Why?
Peter: Because it’s hard to type when you aren’t there.
Mom: I’m trying to understand what I am doing that helps you type. Is it that sometimes I can guess what you want to say and give choices?
Peter: no, it’s that you believe in me.
Today we bumped into an old friend I had not seen for a long time at the YMCA. Nina has always been full of love and warmth- she’s a real angel of positive energy. When I called her name, “Nina?”, she immediately looked up and ran towards us with gentle hugs for us both and genuine affection. Peter started to glow. He looked up and smiled at her. When I introduced him, he typed on my iPhone, “I ann pleased to meat you.” When she replied how happy she was to meet him as well, he spontaneously reached over to type, continuing the conversation with a completely appropriate question, “How was your Christmad?” Nina described her frosty visit to New York, then asked Peter how his Christmas was. Peter replied, “It was great. We saw a boat parade, Ocean Newport.” This whole time, he kept glancing up at her shyly with a little smile.
I was completely floored. It’s as if your child just suddenly skipped several grades in a moment. Though we have good conversations in quiet settings, one on one, Peter had always required lots of prompting to make even rote social interchanges on the fly. He looks away, rarely into a stranger’s eyes. Yet here he was, standing in the crowded, bustling atrium of the YMCA, engaging in small talk like the most fluent of social butterflies! Not having known Peter from the past, Nina flitted away to exercise, oblivious of the miracle that she had just enabled.
In “My Stroke of Insight,” brain scientist Jill Bolte Taylor describes how attuned she was at the time of her stroke to the kind of energy various people would bring into a room. When a loving, kind nurse would enter, take her hands, and talk to her gently, she responded with hope and engagement. When a brusque doctor would walk in and talk about her as if she wasn’t there, she felt disconnected and lost. Even for those of us with our whole brains available to filter and process our perceptions, we function far better in the presence of encouragement and acceptance. But for stuggling brains, positive energy is absolutely crucial. It is not a nebulous, superfluous though pleasant accoutrement. It is a tangible, critical support without which function is not possible.
Peter had a dental appointment today at Children’s Hospital dental clinic. He was assigned a new doctor, a young, lovely Dr. Annie. As soon as she stepped into the room, you could feel her warmth and kindness. We were doing breathing exercises with Peter, who was desperately anxious and in definite flight mode. She quietly observed as we had Peter sit down in five second increasing increments between deep breaths, accommodating his need to sit in an ordinary chair, and timed it perfectly to insert herself before him and deftly examine his teeth in the 30 seconds we eventually worked him up to. She was quiet and quick, and gave not a hint of impatience. If she had tried to take over, take control, direct the situation, Peter would have flown. In floortime we have a saying, “Don’t just do something, stand there!” Truly, what made that visit successful was her quiet patience as she observed and attuned to her fearful patient’s needs, acting with precise timing, no more and no less than what was required, and providing critical support with her constant positive energy and kindness.
Today I was at Teen Buddies. Our small group was trying to slog through a boring board game. You could see the eyes drifting to the door. I suggested a different game I’d read about in Dan Siegel’s book “The Whole Brain Child” in which each participant relates three things that presumably happened that day, the challenge being for the others to guess which of the two are true, and one is fabricated. It took some warming up, but the teens soon caught on to it, delighting themselves with the cleverness of the made up happenings they could come up with. It was truly a joy to see that gleam in each of their eyes, especially how proud one of them was who is usually trumped by the creativity of the others, but came up with “traveling to Lala Land” and “winning a million dollars at Patagonia Casino,” which we all agreed were brilliant fabrications. The kids didn’t need a director or teacher, they just needed someone to get them started, heartily appreciate their jokes, and cheer them on.
Dr. Taylor makes the point that a provider must be cognizant of the energy he/she brings into a patient’s room. It’s a big responsibility. Truly, we humans are both body and spirit. Love is as essential as food and water. Just who you are and the genuine caring you bring are as important and empowering as what you do. And sometimes you can do much more by not just doing something, but standing there with the love and encouragement that light a fire.