“Come on, Peter, let’s keep going. You can do it,” I said unconvincingly as we slowly trudged down the promenade. We came to Descanso Gardens to try to walk off a 230 calorie ice cream bar Peter had snatched from the grocery store freezer right before check-out.
I got him past several benches. Finally it was clear that the inertia was too much to overcome. Peter started squealing, and I knew that the chin-banging would soon follow. We spied a bench next to a duck pond at the end of the promenade.
Peter looked at me, hopeful. “Ok, just for a minute, Peter.” He made it to the bench and plopped down in relief. I sat next to him, a ball of frustration and worry. The doctor had told us that exercise was imperative, both to control Peter’s weight gain (due to his insatiable appetite) and to help temper his stimming, impulsivity, and emotional dysregulation (chin-banging). But how were we supposed to exercise when he has catatonia?
I didn’t know what to do. But the gardens were beautiful. There was a heavy, dark branch of a large oak draped over our heads like a canopy covered in tiny green leaves, sparkling in the late afternoon light.
I pulled out Peter’s iPad. “Under a green bower,” I typed, then offered the keyboard.
Peter started typing. The magic of the garden cast its spell of peace over the two of us, as Peter crafted his poem.
The quack of ducks. caw of crows,
flap of wings,
the rush of water,
the murmur of voices
happy sounds of a fall afternoon.
Under a green bower,
the water ripples, cool and quiet.
A school of goldfish swim by,
a streak of color.
Green heads, blue underwings,
a splash and flash of bright yellow,
The ducks preen,
hoping for a fish.
A boy sits and points,
disappointed at the dancing ducks.
I feel the same way.
How I long to hold you
Pretty, fluffy duck!
But you get away.
We sat a few minutes, the poem impressing the beauty of the scene into my spirit.
I said, “Peter, I loved your poem! The Lord gave you the gift of words, a gift of something lasting. Whenever I read this poem I can come right back here to this pond and experience it again.” Peter typed back his reply, “Thanks Mom, good poem. I enjoyed it. I wish we could do this every day forever.”
Just then, a man appeared behind us. He unlocked the gate to the Rose garden which was sealed off for a ticketed lighted carved pumpkin display to open later that evening. He drove through the gate in his tractor, leaving the gate open.
Peter stood up. He took my arm and led me away from the pond back to the path. “Peter, did you want to go this way or that way?” Peter pointed to the gate. As Peter pulled me along, I became intrigued. Before us were hundreds of Jack O Lanterns, some laying on the grass, some suspended in the air, wearing every variety of expression, many glowing softly with lights. Peter urged us on deeper into the Rose Garden, now transformed into a giant pumpkin patch. “Peter, I don’t think we’re supposed to be here. And the gardens are closing, it’s getting late.” Spooky music started wafting through speakers stationed overhead. That persuaded Peter. He turned me round and escorted me swiftly back through the gate, down the promenade, into the parking lot. “We made it, Peter! And no one saw us!”
As I related our adventure to Peter’s psychologist, Dr. Gwen, she pointed out how it had demonstrated the efficacy of floortime therapeutic principles. When a child shows signs of emotional dysregulation, consider the possible causes- a sensory or motor issue, primary emotional cause (such as panic attack or OCD), or behavioral (such as anger or frustration from not getting something preferred or trying to get out of something nonpreferred). In this case, Peter had a motor issue, inertia/mild catatonia, and we relieved the dysregulation by sitting down. That addressed Greenspan’s FEDL (functional emotional developmental level) one, getting a child into a calm, regulated state. When I offered the “stem sentence,” “Under a green bower…” Peter engaged with me. That was accomplishing FEDL two, joint attention and engagement. The poem allowed Peter to shift his attention completely away from the frustration of being made to walk when walking was hard and effortful to the beauty of the natural scene before us. Sharing and discussing the poem brought us into FEDL three, back and forth communication, and of course much beyond to a bit of self-reflection. Fully re-compensated, Peter was then ready to engage those frontal lobes to exercise the curiosity that overcame his inertia/catatonia completely and take the initiative (FEDL four) to explore the Jack o Lantern display, and power me swiftly back to the car. Intent, driven by the emotion, not conscious, voluntary, heavy handed willpower was what circumvented Peter’s motor disability, the faulty start signal in his basal ganglia that initiates motor actions.
I was both stunned and grateful. Just as embryology recapitulates ontology, so we parents must recapitulate the levels of functional emotional development in the individual scenarios of daily life. When dealing with any dysregulated individual, keep in mind what you do with a fussy baby. You first take care of physical needs and adjust environmental stimuli and demands. (Get in a quiet room, rock the baby back and forth. Choose a beautiful natural place for Peter, let him sit down when motorically exhausted.) Invite, don’t pull the child into engagement. (Smile gently at the baby and coo. Offer Peter the keyboard with a stem sentence.) Constantly attune to your child’s feedback to create a fun back and forth. (Wait for the baby to smile back at you, and adjust the pace and amplitude of your coos and smiles according to the baby’s feedback. Scaffold the offering of encouragement and more stem sentences or phrases unobtrusively, and as needed as Peter crafts his poem). Recognize and encourage initiation. (If the baby starts laughing, widen your eyes and chuckle back. When Peter started pulling me through the gate, I went, though cautiously.)
We had a wonderful afternoon at Descanso. I may not have known what we were doing, but upon reflection, I learned a lot. You can’t rush. Those fundamental stages of emotional regulation and attunement are critical, and you must take whatever time it takes to address them thoroughly. I often feel myself pulling, doing 90% of the work to move Peter through an episode of dysregulation. That’s what happens when you’re trying to get through to an upper brain that may be mostly inaccessible at the time. Take down the emotional affective filter first, and then you can talk. The heart has reasons the head knows none of, and dealing with autism frequently requires the heart to lead the way.