Susan's Blog

Friday, January 21, 2011

Experience Breeds Ability

I was looking for a place to toss a shovelful of snow that I’d just dug up next to the car when I thought about Nat.  Nat was still at the group home, but we had told him that as soon as the snow stopped and we were dug out, we’d come get him.  I threw the snow right or maybe left — we are really running out of space and the drifts bordering the driveway are about five feet high by now — and I imagined Nat and his brothers shoveling.

We are all really good at shoveling these days.  I pictured handing the shovel to Nat and seeing him push it down and push the snow aside.  No problem. But it used to be.  Such tantrums!  He couldn’t be outside with us.  And if we left him inside, he’d freak out in there, watching us working outside.  The horrible feelings I had, knowing I couldn’t be inside or outside.  There was no place to go, no place to be on this earth because my child was so unhappy and he could not understand what was going on.

Now he shovels snow willingly and competently.  Yet another skill, another feather in Nat’s cap.  How did this come to be?

We made him do it anyway.  We lived through tantrums.  We had shoveling (shopping days, movie outings, parties, holidays, vacations, meals, sleepless nights) days that ended badly.  Nat has been exposed to a lot of activities.  It’s as simple — and difficult — as that.  The more Nat experiences, the more he is able to do.  As soon as we realized that we needed to familiarize Nat with as many things as possible, we started to take him out, make him be around people and go to new places.  It was almost always really, really hard.  We tried a Cape Cod vacation:  terrible.  Each year, not as much.  Stayed with my parents:  it got better.  Switched to the ocean, rather than the bay side and brought boogie boards:  success.  Still difficult, because he walks in circuits and ends up too close to others’ blankets. But still, we enjoy ourselves for a lot of it.  Not all of it, but enough.

Challenger T-ball; failed.  A year later we tried Special Olympics gymnastics: success.  But bumpy success.  Nat sometimes slapped people or had tantrums or spaced out.  We stuck with it.  Or rather, Ned did.  I’m the coward of the two of us.  I find out about stuff and dream things up, but Ned very often ends up following them through. You gotta have at least one parent who doesn’t mind people staring, or an occasional pinch.  I think that even if you are a single parent, you should find a way to have a second person around sometimes.

Vacuuming.  Food shopping.  Parties.  Shoveling.  We took Nat places.  Even for abbreviated visits and outings.  Because even if he had tantrums during the event or activity, it was becoming a part of his repetoire.  Stored data.  Information he could draw on for the next time.  If there was a tiny seed of it already there in his mind, no matter how sharp and horrible that experience had been, it was now lodged there, resting in his gray matter.  And that is the most fertile ground there is.


[…] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Brett Miller, Alltop Autism. Alltop Autism said: Experience Breeds Ability […]

— added by Tweets that mention Experience Breeds Ability « Susan's Blog -- on Friday, January 21, 2011 at 11:06 pm

Thanks for the reminder, Sue. All those outings are challenging — and very mortifying to the sibling — but it’s good to have your perspective of being a few years ahead of us and knowing it’s worthwhile.

— added by Andrea Congdon on Saturday, January 22, 2011 at 12:19 am

My son is like that about shoveling (won’t help but I don’t feel comfy leaving him inside while I shovel.)
Sadly, in my area (apartment), if someone saw a child screaming like mad, they would call the police. So forcing him to shovel is not an option for me.
I do, however, have him help with other things.

— added by Barefoot Liz on Saturday, January 22, 2011 at 7:47 am

I got a note home about not taking him to Disney on Ice. I told them “he’s going”. He’s not behavioural in the violent sense but they seem to chalk every little thing up to being “overwhelmed”. As the Teacher and I discussed yesterday morning it’s called “being a child”. He get’s the pissies, but never anxious.

He is going…. I just wish they would “parent” him more instead of letting him return to the classroom. He did it for 4yrs before at his home school, he can do it there.

— added by farmwifetwo on Saturday, January 22, 2011 at 8:10 am

When they were young (about 3, 6 and 12) I just stopped bringing my daughter to her sisters’ important events. Time after time I would have to leave the room to calm her and missed their moment. I just couldn’t be present for them if I was constantly looking/calming/talking to her. I felt guilty that she didn’t see her sisters’ plays or graduations or recitals but I think it was important for them to have me there fully. That worked for us.

When they (and she) got older I did bring her (and still do) and it works out fine: they know I may leave the room with her plus she can handle the events better.

— added by Susan on Saturday, January 22, 2011 at 9:03 am

I am going to print this out and put it on my refrigerator! Great post and a good reminder to stick with it – we’ve had our ups (going to the Stock Show, which has been a disaster in the past, was so much better this year!) and downs (going to a Christmas party – we lasted approximately 2.5 minutes). Thanks again for the encouragement!

— added by Suzette on Saturday, January 22, 2011 at 9:22 am

Good for you (and for Nat) to keep tryin new things until they become familiar.
I don’t have an autistic child but I used to teach autistic teens. There was considerable pinching, hair pulling and menanceing among the less verbal, more profoundly autistic boys. It seemed to be fear based. Has that been your experience with Nat?

— added by Sunni on Sunday, January 23, 2011 at 7:22 am

Hi Sunni,
I truly believe that any difficult behavior we see in someone (autistic or not) has to have a basis in something rational, like pain, fear, anxiety, discomfort. For Nat, many of his most aggressive moments have been because he could not express himself quickly enough, before his feelings overtook him. Over the years, as he has become more experienced in expressing himself, even with one word to identify the problem, he has become more able to deal with frustration. See? Experience breeds ability! 🙂

— added by Susan Senator on Sunday, January 23, 2011 at 8:19 am

I did the same, and my reasoning for taking my son anywhere and everywhere I could is that you never know when you’re going to get a “hit”–that is find something they enjoy doing that you never thought of (of course that works both ways–something you think they will love becomes meltdown city). But, a good “positive” for me last year turned out to be the symphony. I got my little guy dressed in a tie (so cute) and headed to the “Halloween Pops” here, got tickets in the 2nd front row (students get in for free) so at least he could have something to look at besides the back of people’s heads, but long story short, he loved it. He absolutely loved it. The music was fantastic and I ended up writing a thank you note to the director telling him about Matthew and how well things went for us. I also now hopefully have an “escort” for the symphony in my old age (my girls hated it). Matthew and I made a pact right then–one day we he is older we will travel to New York City and see a musical on Broadway. Together. I know he will love it.

— added by Sharon Jones on Monday, January 24, 2011 at 12:49 pm

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