Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Regulating Yourself

After three days of being with his volunteer "buddy" at a church conference, Josh was done.  One of the staff working the conference came to find me in the main meeting area in the middle of the session with a look of quiet desperation.  

"Uh, are you Josh's mom?  He's really unhappy."

I race walked to the area where Josh was sitting. His beloved magnadoodle had been thrown to the floor, earbuds were still sort of sticking out of one ear.  Josh was viciously scratching his eczema on his neck with one hand and then periodically hitting his head with the other hand.  He was wailing loudly and huge, wet tears were plopping off of his face onto his already food-stained shirt.

"Ok, buddy.  Mama's here.  Let's go for a walk."

I thanked the volunteer, who was mighty glad to return responsibility for this hysterical child to me.  Josh and I walked hand in hand to the parking lot, tears still dripping off of his face, where the evening sun was just starting to be low and orange.  After we did a few laps around the vast parking lot Josh seemed to be doing better.  When I turned on some worship music on my phone Josh started doing his happy circles; spinning round and round, flapping his hands, first smiling then laughing.  

Why do autistic people walk in circles?  Josh doesn't do this but a lot of other autistic kids like to jump-- over and over again.  Why?  The  best explanation I've heard is that spinning and jumping are examples of repetitive motor behaviors. When a child is spinning or jumping he/she is activating the vestibular system. The child may seek vestibular stimulation as a means to elicit “feel good” sensations and/or also to positively affect his/her arousal.  In other words, many children with autism seek sensory information or experiences from the environment (due to feeling under-stimulated). They may also use spinning and jumping as a way of regulating themselves (i.e.: when they are stressed, anxious, or overwhelmed). Spinning and jumping can help one feel regulated and “grounded.”

Watching Josh turn to spinning to calm himself down made me realize that it might not be as bad or strange of an idea as one might think.  To come to think of it, I need regulation now and then and maybe spinning is not as bad of a choice as yelling at one's family members or eating a whole bag of Tostitos.  

We all have our ways of getting regulated or grounded, don't we?  Some methods are more socially "normal" than others but they all are a sign that our minds, emotions and bodies get out of whack and we are trying to find a way out.  Sadly, some of our choices don't actually bring the restorative centeredness that we really need.  Sometimes disregulation leads to more disregulation and we just spiral into a very unhappy place-- like Josh was doing when he was crying, scratching and hitting himself.  

But with a little help from someone that we love and trust, we can find a different way, a new way to get centered and calm.  In the quiet of the parking lot with the vast, golden San Luis Obispo hills in the background, it occurred to me that Josh's spinning was like an autistic prayer.  It was Josh expressing that he was needy and not right in his own mind, heart and body.  It was a way for Josh to open himself up to joy, peace and, I think, his Creator. 

Tonight, the fruit of Josh's spinning was a smile and a calmer body.  After a while, he took my hand and was clearly ready to walk back into the church.  

Are there times where you could use a little help with your self-regulation?  What does centering prayer look like for you when you are overwhelmed?  

Thursday, July 10, 2014

Sand, Saltines and Consequences

The other day I walked into Josh's room to find that he had taken an entire sleeve of saltine crackers and had crumbled them up into fine, sand-like granules all over the floor of his room.  Playing with sand has always been a favorite activity for Josh.  Particularly, he loves to watch sand falling through his fingers.   He could sit for hours lifting a handful of sand up to eye level, watching it fall, then laughing like crazy. It must be wonderful and beautiful in a way that my non-autistic brain just can't understand.  I let him do it at playgrounds and at the beach because it makes him so happy and it keeps him busy while his sisters are running around.

While I'm glad for Josh's ingenuity in recreating this beach-like scenario in his own bedroom, I have to admit that I was livid when I found the cracker crumbs covering the floor in his bedroom and his bed.  The moment I walked into his room, Josh must have known that I would be upset.  Before I could say anything, he echoed something I have said in exasperation many times, "Ohhh, sweetie!" (except with a more loving, compassionate tone than what was about to come out of my mouth).

Now, usually, when I find a shocking mess in Josh's room (in the past it was poo on the walls or coffee poured into his desk drawers) I usually get him out of the way and use my massively pumping adrenaline to power me through a vicious, dragon-mama cleaning process.  Miraculously, this time I had the presence of mind to make my son deal with the consequences of what he had chosen to do.

I took a deep breath and said, "Josh, you need to clean this up."

"No" my almost-adolescent said to me.

"Yes, Josh.  You need to vacuum."

Josh sat there silently, not looking at me but clearly waiting to see if I would really make him face the consequences of his mess.  He has never used the vacuum before because he has had a strong negative reaction to the sound of the vacuum.  Along with lawn mowers, blenders and crying babies, vacuums have always been his auditory kryptonite.

I took his hand and walked him to the garage.  I pointed to the hand held mini-vac.  He knew exactly what this meant.

After he tried the mini-vac on his carpet (which didn't work) I made Josh go get the regular big vacuum.  I'm proud to say that we cleaned that room up without my ever touching an implement of cleaning.  I just gave verbal prompts or pointed and waited for him to figure it out.  It took a loooooooooong time but he did it!

Through this experience, I realized the following things:

1)     I still do way more FOR Josh than I need to.  I do things reactively, just to get them done when I should be letting/ making Josh do things for himself.  I need to curtail my motherly impulse to do things for my child and make him learn to do it by himself.

2)     All children (even kids with special needs) need to learn that there are consequences for the messes that they make.  If we don't give them some sort of immediate consequence that they understand, they will keep making those messes.  Since Josh is going to be living with me for a lot longer than when he turns 18, I am very motivated to train him to stop making messes like this.

3)     Josh can accomplish things that I often don't imagine him being able to do.  I had no idea until this day that he could handle the auditory challenge of the vacuum noise.  I wouldn't have guessed that he could wind the cord back up onto the back of our vacuum.  Josh can figure out how to get the vacuum back to the garage and he totally knows where it goes.  I could have gone a long time without realizing these things because I always do the vacuuming in our house.

So now, there is one more chore that I can get help with around our house.  A stumbling block has been turned into a stepping stone to something new!