Friday, September 24, 2010

Working Our Way Through Things

It's a perfect blending of my personal "lessons learned" - reliving with one of my grandkids something I have experienced over and over again with those I have worked with who struggle with what we call a "disability" but is really more like a "different way of experiencing the world."

Our three-year-old granddaughter is at a new preschool this year. She's always been a happy, easy-going child who is able to find ways to entertain herself - an "easy" child to care for and love. For a variety of reasons - lots of fun time with her family over the summer, followed by having both parents suddenly VERY busy with other demands in their lives and of course an entirely new setting where she would be expected to spend some very long days on her own - this particular transition has not gone well at all.

I was called two days in a row to come and pick her up because she was running a slight fever, not eating, and crying all the time. But as soon as I arrived, she perked up, and once we got home she did nothing but eat and chatter nonstop for at least a good hour, before moving on to play with her favorite toys as though nothing was wrong at all.

Bless those preschool teachers, who undoubtedly have seen it all. They could see we needed to change this pattern as quickly as possible. Those of you who have kids with autism will no doubt relate to what has helped - and all of us can learn from the experience.

First of all, we established that they would NOT be calling Grandma if she isn't "feeling well" and then they made up a visual schedule (love it!) of the day's activities so that she would know what was going to be happening and just how many more things were planned before pick-up time. She's a talker by nature, so once they could get her to stop crying they could start helping her talk things through.

And she does need to talk things through, over and over again. On the weekends, she established a play routine that went on for hours. Using a special teddy bear, she would bring her "baby" to me, the "teacher," and gently say good-bye, reminding her baby that she'd be back to pick him/her up after nap time. And she'd walk to another part of our house. She didn't really care what I did next, so I could read the paper or whatever, but I DID have to put the teddy bear down for a nap when she was ready to return for the loving reunion.

I can't tell you how many times we repeated this scenario, but it extended over at least three weekends - and it has worked. Things are going much better, and I know she is going to be just fine.

Now, what if she weren't able (at age three, or at any age!) to speak. How could she possibly find a way to work through all the anxiety, fear, sadness, loneliness, whatever?

I think about the many kids I have known over the years with autism, Down syndrome, or other conditions that cause serious problems with communication. So very many of them developed what we see as repetitive behaviors (or even "obsessions") and I am sad to say there have been times when we (the parents or professionals, those in the know!) thought this was unacceptable social behavior and tried to remove it from their repertoire. (My humble apologies to all those kids!)

Think about the kids who wear out VCR or DVD players by playing a favorite video over and over again, or the ones who have to see every single Thomas the Tank Engine story. I had one boy who collected Berenstain Bear books. He didn't always need us to read them to him, but did seem to find great comfort in spreading them out, touching them lovingly, and even going from one room to another in our school to seek out any that he hadn't yet seen and touched. Whether it's Sesame Street, Blue's Clues, the Muppets, Disney videos or Thomas, there must be SOMETHING that helps our kids cope with the world around them, something in the message, or something in the repetition.

May I suggest that we don't really have to figure out precisely what attracts them. It is enough to accept that there is something special going on and then let them use these special tools to work through whatever they might be struggling with at the time.

I would love to have others share their personal stories about "useful obsessions" :-)