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Friday, October 24, 2014

Refusing to live in fear

“I must not fear. Fear is the mind-killer. Fear is the little-death that brings total obliteration. I will face my fear. I will permit it to pass over me and through me. And when it has gone past I will turn the inner eye to see its path. Where the fear has gone there will be nothing. Only I will remain.” ~ Frank Herbert, Dune

"Cowardly Dog" drawn by Adam


We've all experienced fear - a basic human emotion with a very basic function: to keep us alive in a dangerous situation.

If we're being chased by a lion (or in Adam's cowardly dog scenario, a hungry fox), a flood of adrenaline that heightens our senses and prepares us to run away fast is an extremely useful physiological response. Also helpful are the safety lessons learned from fear (like "don't go into that dark cave") that might keep us alive when similar situations come up in the future.

But everyday life is not often about outrunning predators, and if you ask people about their fears, lions and tigers and bears (oh my!) are not usually at the top of the list. Instead, our fears focus on things that are less tangible - failure, loss, pain, the unknown or unexpected, separation from loved ones - diffuse fears that can last much longer than a few minutes of fighting for your life. When these are the demons you face, an adrenaline-fueled "fight or flight" response is not so helpful.

A common topic in therapy sessions with my students is that emotions aren't wrong or right, they're simply how you feel, although it's useful to be able to name an emotion, and then logically understand how it connects to your actions and choices in the larger world. When you choose to let fear stay in the driver seat of your life, logic doesn't just take a back seat, it often jumps right out of the car ... and fear and panic-filled choices rarely take you where you really want to or should go.


"Running Scared" picture drawn by Adam


So what to do?

"Fear is the mind-killer. Fear is the little-death." ... these words from Frank Herbert's novel "Dune" often run through my head when I find myself letting fear get the upper hand in my life.

Fear kills joy and robs us of happiness in the present tense. It may sound cliché, but today is the only time you actually have - the past is memories and the future is imagination. If you make the compromise of saying "well of course I'm worried, look at what happened yesterday" or "anyone in my situation would be scared witless of what's coming next", you choose to lose the moment you're in. You sacrifice present joys, no matter how small, for the pale satisfaction of being proved "right" if the worst should come to pass in the future. The tough part about this is that we seldom understand, in the moment, that this is the choice we are making.

This was a lesson we had to learn early on in our family life. Our second child, our daughter, was diagnosed with cancer shortly after her first birthday. My husband and I were a few years out of school, barely used to being "mom" and "dad", no financial resources (actually negative financial resources since we'd been living on a post-doc salary) and two children under the age of three. It's not easy to fight fear when you're living in a paediatric cancer ward and all that you hold dear is in jeopardy - even harder when you both have the science background to understand exactly what the diagnosis means and how slim the chances of a positive long-term outcome are. So we had a choice, actually we had to choose again and again, day after day ... to live happy, to live our lives as a family in and out of the hospital to the best of our ability. And you know what? After the initial shocked weeks, we did it. I look back on the pictures from that time and I see us laughing and playing and having fun ... when we had to cry, we cried at night in the dark ... no one could have given our daughter a happier life than we did. And we didn't get a miracle ending, and we didn't dodge the pain and sorrow that came with losing her, but we have no regrets about the full and joyful life we lived while we had her with us.

No one knows how long they have with the ones they love. What a shame to waste days in a cloud of fear and anger and "why me?". Cry when you must, seek out solace from friends and family, but don't live in darkness and sadness. Find the joy, hold on to the funny and the sweet and the dear bits. Love the day you're in, love the people you're with, love the life you have. Look fear in the eye, stare it down and refuse to let it rule you ... and expect to choose and choose again each day.

Because today is the only day you have.


... and let me end with a quote that I heard a short while ago, at the beginning of another difficult time in our family ... I would love to tell you the source of this quote, or even the exact wording, but no matter how I search, I can't find it ... so let me just attribute this piece of wisdom to "unknown" and hope that you might find it as helpful and hopeful a piece of advice as I did:

"Doubt your fears at least as much as you doubt your hopes and dreams" ~ Unknown

(... and live the h*ll out of the day you're in)


Thursday, August 21, 2014

The gift of free time

"Kids need time to be bored; that is how creativity is born" - Melanie Jean Juneau 

When I was a child, summer was my favourite time of year. I would wake up each morning knowing that the day was mine, that anything could happen, and that as long as I showed up relatively unscathed at mealtimes my mother would ask very few questions about how I was spending my time. My brothers and sisters and I explored, created, imagined, read, and ran free. Summertime felt endless and we were the luckiest of people. If I had to point to one factor in the successful development of my happily eccentric brain, it would be that yearly summer freedom.

School can be hard and confining, especially for an active person with an unusual flavour of mind. I feel very strongly that summer programs for individuals on the autism spectrum should not be anything like the school year. As the old saying goes, "a change is as good as a rest", and summertime is perfect for releasing arbitrary structures and giving those unusual and interesting minds a chance to run free, led by their own curiosity, imagination and interests.



Allow me to share the summer chapter of my young friend Kieran's artistic, communication and intellectual development
(to read the back story, click here - part 1 and here - part 2 )

I'll let Kieran (in pictures) and his mom (in words) tell the story themselves:


E-mail #1: Kieran found the Usborne book "Playtime Activities" in his room. I explained that these were instructions on how to draw different things. I love this lion he drew!






E-mail #2: He' s on a roll- he just drew this in my notebook:


He has been talking to me about building a growing machine for the last few days, which I connected to one of the Little Critter stories (I think it's When I Get Bigger) ... I told him that he couldn't make a growing machine out of wood, but that he could make one out of Lego. I'm guessing he didn't like that idea and decided to draw one instead.

I'm delighted that it made your day!


E-mail #3: Here's a car crusher that he built yesterday after watching Mighty Machines. The car crusher is lego and he wrapped some toy cars to crush.


Your advice to let him have an unstructured summer was perfect.



It is a damaging myth that people on the autism spectrum lack imagination and creativity (food for thought: read this blog post from Jonathan Alderson ). The development of creativity and imagination require less-structured (or unstructured) time and open-ended situations. When we fill up every minute in the day with "educational" activities, when we set up learning environments where there are limited "right" answers, when we allow no time for a person to follow their own interests and ideas, we stifle the growth of what is arguably the most important intellectual ability that humans can possess.

“I am enough of an artist to draw freely upon my imagination. Imagination is more important than knowledge. Knowledge is limited. Imagination encircles the world.”               ~ Albert Einstein 

Give unstructured time a try - you won't regret it and your kids will remember it for a lifetime 

Tuesday, July 8, 2014

Drawing to Communicate: making sure your message is received!

This morning I received the kind of message that totally recharges my "therapist batteries".

In a recent post (click here to read "Drawing for Communication: how to get things started"), I wrote about Kieran, a young boy on the autism spectrum, who was beginning to use his newly developed drawing skills to communicate. Earlier today, his mom sent me an update by e-mail:

"We were chatting about having an outing ... either to Carp Market or the beach at Fitzroy Harbour Provincial Park. Kieran was in the room when we were talking and said that he wanted to go to the beach. We acknowledged his input, but I think he wanted to make really sure that we understood - he got a piece of paper and a pencil and drew this for us!"





Yay, triple yay for Kieran! He used his new drawing communication skills to make sure that his important message was received by his family (who were happy to accommodate his wishes in the family schedule for the day).

Being able to clearly communicate your thoughts and wishes to others (who will listen to and respect that communication) is the strongest strategy for short-circuiting difficult behaviour and melt-downs - knowing that you're "heard" makes all the difference.

Thanks so much to Kieran and his family for allowing us to share this story .... Sheila B


Posted using BlogPress from my iPad

Monday, June 23, 2014

Drawing Together for Communication: how to get things started

Drawing can be a useful tool for developing communication skills in young children, and in older children (and teens and adults) with communication delays.


One of the techniques I commonly use in therapy is "collaborative drawing", where each person contributes to the larger drawing, and the drawing itself acts as a visual record of the conversation or story. Take a look at this video (made with my typically developing nephew Will when he was 4 years old) for a short demonstration of this technique:



 
 

Today I want to share with you some interesting developments from one of my young friends on the autism spectrum. Kieran is a bright active young boy (in grade 4) with delays in the development of his verbal language. He is very visual and is a whiz at math and putting together complicated building toys using diagram instructions. For the past two years, his family and I have been drawing things for him, making visual representations of what happens in our toy play and also of situations and interactions from the larger world around him.

During our early sessions, he was happy to have others do the drawing. The drawing was a good anchor for our conversations during play and this helped his focus, his comprehension and his verbal language development. Following our drawing/play sessions he liked to have the big drawings posted on the walls at home so he could look at them, think about them and talk about them with his family.


Then, at the beginning of this calendar year, Kieran started to take a more active role in the drawing process.


He began to frequently tell me what to draw and how to draw it. For example, this "portrait" of him and his cat was drawn in January according to his very detailed instructions:

portrait of Kieran in cowboy hat & tractor pyjamas (drawn by me, directed verbally by him)

He started drawing spontaneously to express himself - here is a picture, also from January, that he drew when his mom was drawing out some challenges from the school day (his suggestion ... how about going to Monster University?):

"I want to go to Monster University"

He has begun to draw collaboratively, adding details and figures to our large drawings (that we do beside our toy play), so now those drawings include his direct visual thoughts as well as his play ideas and what he has verbally directed me to add.

Here's a drawing from February where we explored the difficulty of loud noises and emotional responses to various situations - at the end of our session, he spontaneously added his two cats:


this "big picture" is done on 2 ft x 3 ft paper beside our toy play area
(this day we were playing with trains & plasticine figures)

Kieran's cat Ginger

Keiran's cat Spooky
 
Then at our last session in April, he added multiple details to our picture about Thomas the Tank Engine and friends:
 
Kieran added tracks and faces and smokestacks and many other details



What are the benefits of going after communication in this context?
 
First and foremost, it's fun and relaxed, and it makes formidably difficult skills (communication and social interaction) more approachable and accessible.
 
Second, it stimulates communication development in a very natural context, so the language learned is already generalized to where it's functional and fits.
 
Third, it lets the individual (who is the target of the therapy) set the pace - you can be certain that the information is going in, and they will show you when they have enough information and confidence to give the new skills a try.
 
 
 
 
Because we have never forced the issue, Kieran continues to willingly taking steps forward, trying new things and gaining confidence daily.
 
I leave you with his latest creation, a plasticine cat modeled after the many little plasticine animals I have made for him during our play over the last year - as you can see, it's a great cat with lots of personality and a happy disposition ... just like the young artist who made it.
 
Kieran's clay creation
 
 

Saturday, June 14, 2014

Bob's your uncle, Bob's your dad

A father is someone who carries pictures in his wallet where his money used to be ~ author unknown


I grew up in a big family and many of my childhood memories look like this ...


... lots of kids and four brave parents, two of them dads named Bob - one my own dad, and one my Uncle Bob.


Because of  "the Bobs", I know a lot about what a dad should be: a dad is warm and kind, he spends time with you, he invests his money in his family (refer to opening quote), he tells you when you're going off track, he helps you get back on track, he leads by example, he does silly things, he laughs with his children when they point out those silly things, he loves his life and his wife and his children without reservation or boundary or time limit.

We (my brothers and sisters, cousins and I) have been fortunate to have had the wit and wisdom of "the Bobs" to support and guide us over many decades now - through good times and bad, they have always had our backs, and we have depended on them time and again to help us find our way.

This past week, my Uncle Bob passed away quite suddenly, leaving a hole in the family the size of his large and generous heart. But he didn't leave things undone. Every day, with words and actions, he let his family know how much he loved them. It's this final lesson from my Uncle Bob that I'm holding in my heart - to live my life fully and love my family extravagantly, to leave no room for regrets.

 
 
So on Father's Day, take time to show your dad you love him.
Leave no room for regrets.





Thursday, June 12, 2014

Art Lessons for Less Verbal People: painting self-portraits

 
~ this post is dedicated to (and prompted by) Raymond, Kevin's brother and #1 art fan, who reminded me that lately I've been neglecting the blog ~


This has been a very creative spring for Kevin and Adam. I've been wanting to share what we've been up to, but have been so busy doing art that there's been little time left over to write about our artistic ventures and adventures. In keeping with the creative mindset, we're not going to worry about timeline, and lessons will not be presented chronologically, but instead will be ordered by the whims of my right brain.


Note: when teaching art to students (of any age) who are less verbal, it's important to show more than tell. I use a technique I call "Follow Me" (modified from teaching strategies described in Mona Brooke's excellent book "Drawing with Children") to introduce new art media and techniques. For more on this method, take a look at this video from our YouTube channel:


 


And so, we start at the most recent project, self-portraits.


According to my art teacher (at the Ottawa School of Art), one reason for starting portrait painting with a self-portrait is that the face is very familiar to you. Often artists will create complicated set-ups of easels and mirrors to make it possible to paint on a canvas and refer to the "live model in the mirror" without moving around. We simplified this process (and eliminated the need to stay in one spot) by using the "mirror photo" function on the iPad.

Here's Kevin's iPad photo that he used as a model (we set up our photo so that the source of light was clearly from one side, to simplify the light and shadow):


Next step was to have Kevin do a spontaneous drawing of himself from the photo. When he did this, he made himself in "cartoon" form (which is how he frequently draws himself and family members in our language exercises):


For the next step, Kevin and I drew a side-by-side "guided" drawing, where I brought Kevin's attention to the lines, contours and shadows on the actual photo of his face. This is the "planning" drawing he produced:


Then we started in with paint on canvas. Following the method of my own painting teacher, we made a "paint sketch" with yellow ochre (no pencil lines to paint over later). Then we blocked in the shapes of skin, hair, shirt and background, as well as the areas of light and shadow. By the end of our first session, this is what Kevin's painting looked like:


You can still see some of the yellow ochre sketch lines around the eyes, eyebrows and mouth. With acrylic paints, it takes more than one layer to get vivid colours - this project was the first time that Kevin left a painting incomplete with a plan to finish it the next week (we made this clear before we started painting, so that he was prepared to leave it half-done - another important art lesson tip is "no surprises").

The next week, we added more layers of paint, more details, more light and shadow. And here's the completed self-portrait that Kevin painted (I love the personality that comes through in this painting!):




Adam was involved with some Picasso lessons (more on that in a later post), and so did his self-portrait later in the spring than Kevin. Here are the stages of Adam's self-portrait, and you'll see that although the teaching method was the same, Adam's style and personality results in a different type of finished painting:





 
One final note:
 
always very interesting to me how my "model" drawings and paintings are somewhat mechanical and bland, but the drawings and paintings produced by my students have personality and quirkiness and life to them ...
I'm giving "visual instructions" and they're expressing themselves with art ... so cool
 
 
Stay tuned for more lessons (how am I doing Raymond?)
......... Sheila B

Saturday, May 10, 2014

What my mom does for me

The natural state of motherhood is unselfishness. When you become a mother, you are no longer the center of your own universe. You relinquish that position to your children.
~ Jessica Lange ~
 


Often moms are like wallpaper or weather - the many things they do each day are in the background of our lives, not coming to our attention unless they're undone and something negative happens ("my shorts aren't washed!", "you promised you would drive me!", "you forgot to pay for the field trip!"). Mother's Day is rolling around again, and while it brings my personal "mom-role" to the foreground of my thoughts, it also makes me think about my own mom and the gifts she's given me in my life.

Being a good mother does not call for the same qualities as being a good housewife; a dedication to keeping children clean and tidy may override an interest in their separate development as individuals ~ Ann Oakley ~
The above quote captures the essence of my mom's greatest gifts to me. She was not an avid housekeeper - at any given time in our childhood, the phrase "comfortably messy" would be the best descriptor for our house. And this was to the benefit of me and my brothers and sisters. My mom is an intelligent and creative person with a great kindness and compassion for all people and creatures. She used her mothering time to bring us music and art and a love of books, she rescued kittens who had fallen down the well (even though she was terrified to crawl backwards down the slippery ladder to get them) because we asked her to, she used her training as a nurse to bandage said kittens and all of us kids time and again. She was interested in us as individuals, encouraged us to develop our talents and was our biggest booster (even when we laughed at her "mom goggles" we appreciated the fact that she always had our backs). Much more important than having floors you could eat off.
 
But I think possibly the most valuable gift she gave to me was her way of seeing the best in everyone she met, of being able to love the unlovable, to see good things where others saw nothing worthwhile - her belief in other people sometimes caused her pain, but more often than not resulted in them finding themselves living up to her vision, trying to become that good thing she saw. This optimism blended with compassion is what I try to bring to my own roles as mom, therapist and friend - my mother is my conscience and thinking of what she would say brings me back on track time and again.
 
 
In my line of work, I have the great good fortune to work closely with many moms. Take a look at some of the things these moms do with and for their children, as seen through the eyes of their boys:
 

 Kevin and his mom plant a garden together every spring. When Kevin originally wrote the sentence that Mr. Bean says, he put it together as "That's lovely a garden". In my great wisdom, I helped him move the "a" and correct it to "That's a lovely garden". Then Kevin's mom, who has a wonderful English accent, spoke the first sentence aloud: "That's lovely. A garden!" (my correction was misplaced).

 
Adam's mom has embraced Adam's desire to learn new art skills, and has joined him in taking up painting - they're learning together. Not only that, but she has converted an entire room in their house into a painting studio for the two of them to share (with the help of Adam's dad as contractor!). 


And Owen appreciates the fact that his mom will "spring" him from school when he is at the end of his mental rope - her sensitivity to his inner state allows him to regroup and go back to finish his work another day.


So, on this Mother's Day Eve, take a minute to think of what gifts your mom has brought to your life, and if you can, give her a call and say "Thanks!" ... as for me, I think my mom will understand when I end with this quote (not all childhood stories and secrets need to be revealed!):

My mother had a great deal of trouble with me, but I think she enjoyed it
~ Mark Twain ~