Wednesday, January 19, 2011
Using my feelings words. Wednesday, January 19, 2011.
“I am feeling angry and frustrated.” – Adam, age 5
My friend Makayla has a 5-year-old son who has autism.
Makayla had already raised three older children, who are good scholars, athletic, sociable and well-adjusted, so she realized early on that Adam was different.
At 2, Adam was not yet talking. But he was typing. He used a small computer keyboard to ask for milk or cereal. As he grew, he did more and more complex work on the computer, but resisted potty-training. He resisted hugs and other forms of gentle touch, stiffening up and crying.
Adam would fixate on a particular detail of a toy, such as a tire on a truck, for days. Sometimes he would sit and scream for no reason, but usually Adam was well-natured, even as he avoided gazing into anyone’s eyes. The family gave him the moniker “Peaches” because of his angelic round face and “sweetness.”
Makayla knew Peaches wasn’t developing normally. And as a highly-educated medical professional, she was familiar with the way medical systems work. So she was shocked when doctor after doctor refused to diagnose what appeared to be an obvious case of autism. His second year went by, then his third, then part of his fourth. Despite being basked in love by his family, Peaches could not be touched and had yet to say a word. Makayla knew that any special therapy for her son would have to start as soon as possible, and precious days were ticking away.
Makayla was even more shocked when Peaches finally did get a diagnosis of autism – only to be prescribed therapy that would cost more than $1,000 each week. Makayla’s insurance would not cover the cost, but Makayla was willing to move the sun and the moon for peaches. She paid for the therapy out-of-pocket for several months until she found a different employer with a different insurance plan.
Today, Peaches is a different child. You can see his world opening up around him. He greets people with a giant smile and a hug. And he is talking.
One of the things Peaches is learning to do is to label his feelings, and the feelings of others. On the wall of his room is a chart with faces, expressing anger, sorrow, joy. Peaches uses stickers to say how he is feeling, and he’s learning to speak the words.
We were at the store the other day, and it had been a long day for Peaches. It was time to go, but Peaches wanted to spend more time looking at the toy cars. “Your dad will be home for dinner soon, Peaches,” Makayla said gently. “It’s time for us to go.”
“Leaving before they want to makes people feel angry and frustrated,” Peaches said to his mom. “I am feeling angry and frustrated.”
A deal was made – five more minutes in the toy department in exchange for helping to fold laundry later. Peaches was satisfied. No tantrum necessary. No battle of wills. No spankings or public spectacles.
It struck me that most children learn about feelings by osmosis. Most parents don’t systematically explain to their kids what a feeling is, what to call it and how to express it. Too often, feelings are discouraged, ignored or punished. Some feelings, especially when experienced by children, are understood to be “bad,” like (for example) anger and frustration.
I’m working with my therapist now on “anger issues.” Somewhere along the line in the process of growing up, I learned to detest my own feelings if they weren’t positive. I became phobic of anger – mine or anyone else’s – and unable to endure it or express it in a reasonable way.
Too often, I avoid simply saying the words, “I am angry” or “I am frustrated;” instead, I swallow the feeling and eventually explode, breaking glass and kicking cabinets. I’ve had to pay to repair a hole I put in the wall in an apartment. I’ve broken objects like flashlights and coffee mugs. I lost my voice a few weeks ago because I sat and screamed in the car. In no case did I simply tell someone how I was feeling.
Peaches may be a 5-year-old child with autism, but in some ways he’s way ahead of other kids, as well as many adults, including me. He’s learning to speak his feelings. As an adult, I’m just now beginning to learn to speak mine.