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Saturday, April 23, 2011

There's always a reason!

Adam always disliked the cat. When his sister's cat would enter the room, he would become obviously distressed and uncomfortable, and as quickly as possible would gingerly "shush" it out and close the door. We explored this topic through open-ended drawing sequences (where I would draw the initial picture in the comic strip story, and Adam would complete the sequence of events). We had many stories about the cat, all of which had happy endings for Adam, and less-than-happy endings for the cat. Here's one of them:

Adam's anger at the cat is clear in his drawings, although in real life his outward emotional response would look more like sad distress mixed with irritation - there is a clear contrast between his upset with the cat in the room, and his happy relaxed emotional state once the cat was out.

An alternate ending to this scenario (drawn spontaneously at home) goes even farther in showing the depth of his negative feelings towards the cat ("RIP cat!"):

Once again, interesting that in real life, Adam never hurt the cat in any way (he wouldn't even touch the cat when he was trying to get the animal out of the room) - the pictures reflect his feelings, they are symbolic of his emotional distress, but they do not indicate an intent to cause harm to the disturbing animal. We found out later that Adam was allergic to cats - so the basis for his negative feelings towards the cat was his physical discomfort (from his allergic response) whenever the cat was near.

This anecdote illustrates the importance of finding out what's behind the external behaviour - not always easy with a non-verbal or minimally verbal child.  Without knowing what's behind a particular behaviour, it's possible to unintentionally set up entirely inappropriate and "punishing" programming that forces an ASD individual into a situation that is intolerable for them. Even before we knew the exact reason for Adam's distress over the cat, his parents respected the fact that the situation was over-whelming for him, and they helped him to avoid the cat at home. If we had required Adam to spend time with the cat, the unspoken message to him would have been that it was of no consequence to anyone besides him that the cat was making him sick, and that he should "suck it up" and simply endure his physical discomfort.

One important thing that I have learned over my years of working with this population is that there's always a reason for everything that my ASD clients do, although it can often be a challenge to figure out exactly what that reason is. The value of developing drawing for communication is that it provides a channel for ASD individuals to express their feelings and reactions and opinions on situations that are causing them distress in everyday life. With this information, parents and professionals have a better chance of making a "good guess" about what underlies the often puzzling and challenging negative behaviours of the person with ASD, and once the source is known, it's much easier to find a real solution.