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Posts Tagged ‘frontal lobe’

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.

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As parents, we are all used to doing a lot of emotional regulation, ie soothing and calming. This is especially true when your child has autism, where the amygdala (center of fight or flight responses) may be intensely active, but the frontal lobe inhibitory and modulatory connections take extra time and practice to develop. That translates in real life to lots of tantrums. meltdowns, acting out, and other emotional storms we parents have to figure out how to navigate through every day.

A lot of us have been given a lot of information from our kids’ OT’s on first looking at sensory needs and making sure that we get the hypersensitive child out of noisy, crowded environments, remember hunger, thirst, pain, or the need to go to the bathroom in the child who can’t tell you, and make available the sensory toys they need like putty or trips to the swing or trampoline. This “bottom-up” approach is all good and essential. Got to make sure the lower brain/body essential needs are met.

Assuming those immediate body needs are not the primary issue, our kids’ psychologists make sure we understand how it’s important to address the child’s emotion before we start trying to fix a situation or attempt to problem-solve together. So they tell us to do lots of reflective listening, balance or buffer the child’s mood with our either calming or upregulating (high affect) demeanor, and remember all the hugs and affection our kids might need. That’s what Dr. Dan Siegel (2012, “The Whole-Brain Child”) coins “connecting to the right brain” before you can access the left. Got to make sure essential emotional needs are met.

Our kids’ SLP’s make sure we work hard on helping our kids to verbalize or otherwise communicate their distress, so they don’t have to act it out, and so they have the language they need to negotiate solutions together. This more “top-down” approach develops frontal lobe connections and communication capacities, and is also excellent and essential. Got to make sure the child has the language tools she needs. (Teresa Cardon, 2004, “Let’s Talk Emotions”)

Eventually, gradually, and with repeated practice of walking our kids through these fundamental processes, our kids do improve in emotional regulation. But there is another level that most of us parents perhaps don’t do enough of, sometimes because we aren’t sure our kids have the capacity to do it. That is what Dr. Siegel  calls connecting the left brain with the right brain. That’s when after you’ve done all the above steps, and the child is calmed and regulated, you talk about what happened. You can make learning even more efficient if you not only walk your child through emotionally stressful situations at the time, but reflect and replay them later in conversation and/or play therapy. Ask your child what was going on inside when the explosion hit. Give him/her a chance to identify the emotion, learn to talk about feelings, and recognize gradations or degrees of intensity of feelings, perhaps with an emotional thermometer. You want the child to develop the capacity to recognize an earlier stage of emotional dysregulation, so she can take steps to calm herself and get her needs met before the emotion becomes overwhelming.

Help your child review the event, reprocessing it as you lend your perspective to help her understand what happened. “Oh yes, the circus did seem frightening at first, so we do understand why you cried and screamed so we had to leave for a while. But Mom and Dad were right there the whole time, with a comforting lap to crawl into. And wasn’t it fun to peek into the tent at the last act and see the acrobats? Plus there was that really fun pinwheel you got to blow.” Bring in other memories and experiences that bear upon the situation. “Remember how it was also hard to get out of the car last week when we went to the zoo for the first time? But once you got out and looked around, you saw the elephants and really liked it. Sometimes things are hard at the beginning, but if you give it a chance, you might like it.”

Then help your child apply what he thereby learns from his mistakes. Try what Noel Janus-Norton (2013, “Calmer, Easier, Happier Parenting”) calls “think-throughs.” In anticipation of entering similar stressful situations, you think through the upcoming event with your child as to what to expect and what emotionally self-regulatory strategies the child might initiate if needed. “Hey, tomorrow we’re going to Sarah’s birthday party. It’s a new place, but remember when you went to the circus? That was new too. Yes, you did get anxious, but in the end. remember how much fun we had? Remember this picture? Yep, there you are with a big smile. What did we do when you got anxious? Oh yes, we went outside for a while. You crawled into my lap, and we rocked and hugged under your blanket, and then we got that pinwheel and watched the wind blow it. And then we came back. You know I’ll still be there, I’m coming to the party too. And we can bring the blanket and the pinwheel. And you can tell me if we need to go outside for a while. How do you tell me? Sure, if you can’t find your words, you can point to the door. That will be our secret signal, and I’ll know.” When you do a reflection or a think-through, you are actually walking the child through the steps of cognitive-behavioral therapy, naming the emotion to objectify it and help your child see that it is something she can work on, part of her but not her, identifying the false thought (“all new places are scary and must be avoided”), replacing it with a more realistic thought (“I’ve been to lots of new places before and had a great time”), and brain-storming alternative strategies to screaming or crying (like making a signal to leave for a while, crawling into a parent’s lap, and bringing a transition object).

This process of left-right, top-down brain connection is taking an incident of emotional dysregulation, and making use of it to grow those frontal lobe connections by both looking back and looking forward. Each episode of emotional dysregulation is an opportunity to walk your child through this process, and grow those frontal lobe connections. Especially as she practices initiating the strategies herself, and as you allow her to walk herself through this reflective process, using narration first, then yes/no questions, then leading questions, and finally open-ended conversation, your child will learn to emotionally regulate herself, essentially learning how to do self-CBT (Ann Marie Albano, 2013, “You and Your Anxious Child”).

And I would add, be even more ambitious. Go ahead and introduce your child to bigger concepts like morality and community and virtues. I go ahead and name them. “Hey, Peter, looks like a good opportunity to practice some flexibility.” Or, “Maybe this would be a great time to exercise the temperance muscle.” Madrigal and Winner (2008) have a great book out called “Superflex.. A Superhero Social Thinking Curriculum” where they give the maladaptive behaviors goofy villainous names like “Rock Brain,” so that the parent can say, “Hey, I think Rock Brain just showed up,” and the child can take on the personae of “Superflex Hero,” and brainstorm alternative more flexible courses of action.

Does this all really work? Maybe for your “high functioning” child, you might say. But most parents I’ve met of seemingly less able children tell me they suspect there’s a lot more in their child than meets the eye. Peter was labeled as severely autistic, nonverbal, and low functioning at one time. But even when his expressive communication was at a very primitive level, I kept talking to him as if he could understand, just in case he could. With each episode of emotional dysregulation, I went through all the steps of bottom-up, right-left emotional regulation to try to help Peter feel his needs were met and that he was understood. Then after he had calmed down, we’d work on the top-down problem solving, and at the end of the day do reflections to work on the left-right brain connections. I started out doing nearly 100% of the work, but scaffolded my support and let him do more and more of the work, as he showed the capacity to do it, and developed more and more communication. Believe me, it wasn’t at all as smooth as this summary is making it sound. I didn’t know what I was doing, until I read authors like Cardon, Siegel , Norton, Albano, and Winner later and could be intentional about it. (That’s why I’m sharing this with you, so you can be intentional and efficient to begin with.)

In any case, whatever bumpy, twisty road we took, Peter did learn. He has developed frontal lobe connectivity to an extent that at one time I would have doubted possible. The other day, we went to the community park to watch the Memorial weekend fireworks. What I saw on the outside, was a somewhat anxious teenager who was holding onto my arm for part of the time, but seemed to have matured a great deal compared to his level of anxiety as a child. What I found out later after reading the poem he typed about the experience, was all the hard work of emotional regulation he had been doing for the most part on his own, and the sense of community and love, a highly top-down approach, that ultimately held him together and transformed his experience. (In the story, Joe, Teddy, Luke, and Judy are all siblings; Judy, his oldest sib has two young children of her own.)

 

Memorial Weekend Fireworks, 5/24/15,

by Peter Tran
“Hurry, hurry, Luke put on your coat.”
grab your shoes and open the door.
“Grandpa, tuck those elbows in,
don’t you remember banging them
through the last doorway?”
We rolled him safely through the front door,
and hoisted him onto the front seat.
We all piled in.
Then we arrived,
corner of Foothill and La Canada Blvd,
heart of our fair town,
busy, bustling.
We spied two tall lanky figures,
Joe and Teddy waiting to receive us.
We paused behind a firetruck
and unloaded Grandpa and his wheelchair.
I felt numb.
Crowds of people
all smiling and talking.
Mom grabbed my arm sand propelled me through a maze
of picnic blankets, chairs, and baby strollers.
It was chaos.
I heard a flood of brassy notes,
the high school jazz band playing their hearts out.
Hold on, don’t panic, it’s all just in fun.
I relaxed as the noise diminished.
Phew! the music stopped.
I sank  into my comfy lawn chair.
Dad was there, Luke, coughing from asthma, rolled on the blanket,

Teddy positioned Grandpa’s chair, and Mom miraculously
found Judy and the babies.
Then after a  brief lull,
darkness descended.
That’s  when it started.
Boom, sizzle!
Nothing prepared me for what followed.
The sky exploded in color!
Gold, crimson, all shades of brilliant hues,
spinning, darting, bursting bouquets of flashing stars.
The sights and sounds engulfed me.
I didn’t have ears enough to hear all the music,
reverberations from the explosions filled my head.
Then it was all over.
The lights went on,
and everyone started gathering
their blankets, ice chests, and children.
Pressed in by the happy crowd,
we flowed liked molasses slowly down the street to our cars.
I felt safely insulated by my family,
and families like ours,
friends,
my community,
And even Grandpa was smiling.

edgewaterparklodge.com

edgewaterparklodge.com

My point is, even though developing emotional regulation may be hard in our kids, and takes a lot of work and time, don’t despair. Over time and repetition, those frontal lobe connections do grow. Tackle episodes of emotional dysregulation from the bottom-up, top-down, and left-right, looking back with reflections and forward with think-throughs. Each episode of emotional dysregulation may thereby become an opportunity to connect the parts of the brain and get them to work together. If you miss a few, don’t sweat it. Heaven knows our kids give us plenty of opportunities to practice again!

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