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 Poem” https://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?”
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.
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.