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Friday, December 9, 2011

Comfort in a cold world

A good friend gave me some beautiful red socks the other day ...

... warm cheerful red socks, dropped into a cold spot in my life. You see, my sister is ill right now, and my heart and mind are consumed with worries for her and her family. My friend knew my distress, and she gave me the socks to let me know I was not alone, that she was thinking of me and my sister and wishing us both well. This wonderful unexpected gift set me thinking ...

The world is often a difficult place, with harsh events and seemingly overwhelming challenges; and perhaps no group of people feels this more constantly than those who are dealing with autism. As I was lying in bed early this morning (not sleeping and realizing that I wasn't going to get back to sleep), a story about Adam came into my head. I think it fits, so here it is:

At the time of this story, Adam was in high school. It was springtime, and he was not feeling well because of his allergies. Still, he got up each morning and went to school and did his best. One day, while he was doing some language work with his EA (unscrambling sentences and drawing out their meaning), he seemed stressed and distressed. Then on the side of his paper, he started to add some extra details:

... first this small sad face in the bottom corner ...

... then a whole pageful of sad faces (with one happy face added to emphasize the contrast between how he wanted to feel and how he did feel) .....

It turned out that the night before, Adam had gone out with his mom to get the new Disney movie that he had been wanting to see. Disaster. It was not available in VHS format, instead it was one of the first movies that were only available in DVD. And a DVD was not okay ... it wasn't what Adam expected, and it was a change he couldn't deal with, especially in the spring season. They left the store with Adam in tears.

Next day at school, another "tangent" picture was added to the language work:

Adam wanted to share his happiness that his problem had been solved. We had drawn and written out a comic strip story for him about the change in movie format (from VHS to DVD) assuring him that the movie itself would still be the same. It was challenging, we had more tears, but in the end he tried it and it worked out.

The interesting thing about this story is that the purpose of Adam's communication with the faces was to share his feelings, not to ask for a solution. It was important to him that the school staff understand the source of his sadness and then his gladness. Communication, not for physical wants and needs, but instead a request for human understanding, kindness and compassion.

At the point of contact, therapy is more art than science - yes, you need to know what you're doing and why, but you also need to respond to the person who sits (or hops) in front of you ... you need to focus on the human connection first.  As therapists and educators, we are often poking at the "sore spots", dealing with the challenges and asking our clients/students to do things that are unfamiliar and difficult. Even so, the person with autism should look forward to seeing you, should run towards the door, not away to hide in the closet, when you ring the bell. Regardless of your therapy approach, the person who is the focus of that intervention should feel like you are red socks in their life, not an icy blast of sleet.

One of the things that helps all of us to go on through adversity, to get up in the morning and face another day, is the presence of caring friends ... someone to listen, share the hurt, find the laughter ... someone who lets us know that we're not standing sockless and alone in the snow.

I'm off to see my sister and her boys (little and big) this weekend .... although I haven't got the power to change the circumstances, I'm hoping to bring a pile of warm socks to push back the cold ...