Friday, September 23, 2011

Autism: ISM-ing and joining

For those of you who don't know, one of my very favorite things to do in the world is to spend time playing with very amazingly beautiful children who are on the autism spectrum. Over the last 2 and a half years I've had the privilege of spending hundreds and hundreds of hours playing one on one with a number of these delightful little ones--children whose parents have chosen to use the SONRISE program to try to help their little ones learn to connect with themselves and other people.

My very favourite thing about the SONRISE program is it's unique perspective on the exclusive repetitious behaviors in which many children on the autism spectrum engage. In the wider autism community, these behaviours are often referred to as "stims", and inside the SONRISE community, we like to refer to them as "isms". My belief is that everyone, including neurotypical people, have isms--behaviors which we like to do more or less alone, that we do over and over again, because for whatever reason we find them comforting, or relaxing, or centering, or what have you. Like nail biting. Or zoning out on the internet (teehee).

The perspective that the SONRISE program takes on isms is very different from the perspective that many autism professionals as well as many families of those with autism take. We engage in something called joining. It means that when the child with autism is isming, we do the activity with them. We don't just mimic, however. We really get into it with them--whatever they are doing, we really try to understand it, and really do it with them, exactly as they are doing it, with the same real delight and enthusiasm and concentration with which they are doing the activity. It's our way of saying "We love you, and we think you ROCK, and we think whatever you do ROCKS, and in fact we feel that way so strongly that we want to do it with you.". It's also my belief and observation that when I really join a child with autism in their exclusive repetitious behaviour, I can in a sense almost make that behaviour more effective for them--so that whatever they are trying to get from that behaviour, for themselves, they actually somehow get more of it, faster. The end result is that they do the behaviour less. Many SONRISE mums and dads will bear witness to this--that when they started joining their children, their children's amount of isming went down. Of course there are no guarantees, but this makes a lot of sense to me. I'm much more willing and able to engage socially with others when my sensation is that they totally accept me and are totally stokishly happy to do whatever I want to do.

Anyway, today I was playing with a beautiful little boy on the spectrum, and he was doing this awesome ism for about 15 minutes, and I so enjoyed joining him that I wanted to share with you my experience:

N was standing on one side of the little wooden table, holding a shirt. He stayed standing, but he gently shifted position occasionally, as if to find the optimal position for what he wanted to do. So he'd move back from the table a little, and then move toward it a little. He'd move a bit to the right, and then a bit to the left. All the time during this he was deeply engaged in two things. Firstly he was deeply engaged in the tabletop. He was studying it like perhaps a master antique wooden table expert might study it, or perhaps a master lifelong carpenter who only ever built tables. Secondly, he was deeply engaged in the shirt he was holding, studying its texture, its edges, its shape and color and just deeply fascinated by it. It was as if he was looking for the perfect way and place to hold it in order to use it to engage with the table JUST SO. Then he would swing it in these perfect little circular swings against the table. Also during the entire time, he was vocalizing these beautiful vocalisms--kind of a fascinating vowel somewhere between "eee" and "aaaa". These vocalizations would go up and down in pitch and in loudness.

So I joined him in all these wondrous delightful things. I got a pink sari to use as he was using a shirt, and I got on my knees so I was about the same height as him from the table, and I became deeply absorbed by the patterns of the wood grain on the table top, and by the strange sweet music N and I were making, and by the shape and feel and colour and texture of my sari, and by how the shadows on the tabletop changed as I shifted, back and forth, left and right. Obviously I don't totally understand exactly what N is getting for himself from this exclusive activity, but I can say this--it feels deeply centering. I always feel somehow like I'm the lucky one, when N chooses to ISM while I'm the room with him--like he's sharing this profoundly beautiful experience he creates with me.

Monday, September 5, 2011

A dialogue

I'm choosing to feel really angry.

How come?

Cause this person asked me a question that appeared to be sincere, and as soon as I answered it they attacked my answer and me personally.

And given that they asked you a question and then attacked you and your answer--how come you feel angry?

Cause it felt like a setup--like ... I felt excited that they were engaging me as a human being, that they wanted to know about my beliefs and experiences, and then when I shared myself, they said my answer was clearly wrong, and accused me of unkindness toward my wife.

So which part do you want to talk about--the statement that your answer was wrong, or the accusation of unkindness toward your wife?

Both, really--it was more the whole setup. I feel like I fell for it--like I should have ... been aware that this person wasn't a safe person, and thus I shouldn't have shared myself. I feel like I set myself up for being vulnerable to being attacked.

Given that you knew that this person wasn't a safe person, why did you make yourself vulnerable like that, Benjamin?

I feel like I was sucked in by the question. I had shared something about myself, and the question they asked about it was just so inviting--as if they really wanted to understand me.

Okay--so given that you saw the question and felt really invited to share, and then this person attacked you after you shared--how come you feel angry?

It doesn't feel so much like anger anymore--it feels more like a feeling of not being safe.

What do you mean by not being safe?

I mean ... it feels like there are just these people out there who are going to ask questions that look really inviting and curious and non-judgmental, and then when you stupidly go for the invitation, they attack you. It feels like this nasty setup like a clever fisherman making a really alluring lure, I feel angry that this person would treat me like that--pretend with the pretty lure and then take out a knife and gut and scale me.

So how come you're seeing this person's response that they believe you're wrong, and that they believe you're unkind to your wife--how come that bugs you so much?

It's 'cause I grew up in this system (haha--that's funny 'cause 3 weeks ago I decided to stop believing in systems). Anyway I was gonna say that I grew up in a system where I was treated like this a lot--there was this superficial niceness, but it was contingent on agreeing with the consensus belief framework. So ... I felt like I had to really fight to get out of that system(haha--there's that word again)/community, and now somehow that makes me vulnerable to this sort of thing.

What do you mean by "vulnerable"?

I mean that I feel like I'm a bit of a sucker for this sort of thing.

What do you mean by "sucker"?

I mean that I set myself up for the fall on these things. It happened last week too with another unsafe person. I open up a little bit and be authentic with people who are pretty clearly unsafe--the sort of people who just attack other people's beliefs and opinions willy nilly, and they inevitably respond by attacking me.

Why do you do that, Benjamin?

I don't know.

Take a guess.

I do it because I'm hoping/longing for genuine connection. I want to give people the benefit of the doubt. ... I want to change them. WOW. there's a huge insight. Yep. I feel like somehow giving these people an opportunity to interact with me--a person who is self aware and safe, will help them come to understand what fucks they are, and thus enable them to become less of a fuck and more of a self aware safe person like me.

Why do you choose to feel unsafe around certain people?

It's the element of nasty surprise. Oh my God. I totally do that to my kids--that nasty surprise thing. Like everything will be going along hunky-dory, and then I'll see that they've caused some shocking mess somewhere, and I'll use anger to motivate myself and to get them to do what I want.

Why do you believe that this person saying they believe you're wrong and accusing you of unkindness toward your wife is nasty?

Because it's not what I expected. I wanted them to respond by either saying that my answer made sense to them, or else saying that it didn't make sense to them, but then follow that with another question. Or at the very least to respond by talking about their own experience. I massively dislike it when people talk about my experience in a judgmental way. Why can't they just shut their face?

Why did you dislike it and feel angry when this person talked about your experience in a judgmental way?

Because ... I think I disliked my own sort of instant response--it felt very sympathetic nervous system. You know that fellow who is the cello teacher in Boston, he talks about how his students when they make a mistake they have this judgement about it, and they can then freeze up and get all tight--like a rat gets when it's scared--that frozen, curl in on yourself thing. He makes his students who do that put down their cello and stand up and throw their arms out in the air and shout with exuberance "HOW FASCINATING!". He makes them do it every time, 'til it's habit. Wait a moment. What if I chose to have that response instead today to this person attacking me. I'm gonna try it--one second.

Wow that felt really good. I'm gonna imagine that I just had that experience where this person attacked me, and I'm gonna do that response immediately. Hold on.

OK. Hot damn that feels so good and so much better than my original response. In future, whenever someone verbally attacks me, I'm gonna do that right then and there. WOOOOOOOOOOOOOOT!

Do you feel finished with that?

Yep! Thank you! =)