ONCE UPON A TIME (PART FOUR)

 

What follows is (the 4th and final part of) a story about stories and the wisdom of a six-year-old girl. (Click to catch up on Parts 1, 2, and 3.) I chose to tell this story in parts not just to make the length more manageable, but also because it held several climactic points for me. There are two remaining.

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The meeting with Sarah, her teacher, and my supervisor fell—as mentioned in the prior installment—quite near the end of my internship. Daily I busied myself, preparing for “good goodbyes,” making memory books and hosting last lunches with kids. With only two days a week there, I wasn’t present for the sharing of Sarah’s stories with her class, but Sarah’s teacher said the other children were quiet and attentive as she read aloud the chapters that Sarah had written with me. (I can picture Sarah among them, listening with her whole being.) When it was over, according to Sarah’s teacher, various classmates shared their reactions, all of them kind. One child asked the gorgeously mature and sensitive question, “Do you really feel lonely?”

“Sometimes,” Sarah said.

Sarah had claimed her loneliness again—and this time publicly, among peers. How many of us are able to do that? How many of us “gwownups” are so undaunted, to name what we feel and admit to others what we crave? How often, moreover, are we heard? Properly acknowledged, problems have a tendency to shrink. In addition to admiration for Sarah, her class, and her teacher, I felt hope: she had said “Sometimes,” rather than “Yes.” Could it be that loneliness was gliding away from a total eclipse of her heart?

I returned to the school a week or two after my last day, to give a short presentation at a faculty meeting and turn in my keys. Unbeknownst to me, my supervisor had made a memory book for me, with messages from the kids that I had worked with. I wish I could share the photo, but Sarah is in it, standing before a whiteboard portrait of us, side by side and smiling wide, arms outstretched, fingertips almost touching. It looks like we’re embracing the world. Her message beneath the photo concludes this way: “I had fun visiting you with my friends at school.”

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A gentleman in New Zealand, with whom I’m loosely acquainted via online forums such as this, told a story once about his granddaughter, who had been taught baby sign language from birth:

“My daughter would sign every time she spoke to her daughter. My granddaughter was able to communicate quite effectively well before she could be expected to start talking. I can remember her telling me about what for her was a very traumatic experience when she was around 18 months old. She had seen their cat catch and injure a bird. The bird had been rescued, but it died shortly after. She signed the entire story, much of which I could understand. Some needed to be translated by her mother as I wasn’t fully fluent in their “baby sign,” but it was so heartbreaking to watch her little face as [she] told how the bird had died and they carefully buried it in the garden.”

We are made of stories and need to tell them. Children often need (and always deserve) our support in this. If we say, “Once upon a time,” what enlightening tales might follow?

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Out of respect for client privacy, names are always changed. Barry’s sign language story can be found in the comments of this Musings of an Aspie post. Other text and image copyrights herein held by me. If you enjoyed this piece, please consider sharing it. To subscribe and receive future posts, please look to the upper right on your computer screen, or scroll to the bottom of the page on your mobile device. Thank you for reading.

ONCE UPON A TIME (PART THREE)

 

What follows is (Part 3 of) a story about stories and the wisdom of a six-year-old girl, written back when I was working my first of two internships for my master’s degree. (Click to catch up on Parts 1 and 2.)

When I read back the last line of their story, Sarah and Addie looked so delighted that I thought they might start jumping up and down. I felt, myself, like doing so. At the beginning of the lunch experiment, I’d had a dream in which I saw solitary Sarah playing outside with a friend. Could that dream finally be near to coming true?

“Read it again!” said the girls. So I did. Then, wanting to fortify their newfound camaraderie, I asked if they might like to have their story read aloud to the rest of their class.

Yes, said Sarah—“and the other chapters.”

She seemed determined to share her experience of kindergarten isolation, and it dawned on me that there might be a kind of “greater vision” to her fixation—certainly greater than I alone could perceive—so as a next step, with Sarah’s permission, I invited her teacher and my supervisor to join us for a private sharing of both stories.

Picture a wide-eyed little girl, seated among three adult women: I felt we were surrounding her with care, and I felt that she felt it, too. For the first time since I’d met her, it was as if I could see the whole child—not at a remove, no feint of silliness, but present, visible, and wanting love.

I was again the reader, as Sarah watched her audience of listeners: the vivacious school social worker who greeted her in the hallway every morning, and the kind teacher so clearly valuing the rare chance to give Sarah her undivided attention.

When I reached the end of the last chapter, there was silence. I’d known silence in dyads, but I think that was the first time I’d experienced a therapeutic silence within a small-group setting, and I didn’t recognize and respect it for what it was. Instead, I felt self-conscious, like the hostess of a party that had ground to a halt; I quickly offered to read the other, shorter story.

Thankfully, Sarah’s teacher and my supervisor asked if they could first express what they were feeling. They felt sad and worried, they said. Like me, they wanted to know what they could do to help. Sarah asked, again, if the story could be read to her class.

I want to pause here, creating the smallest delay in your reading, slowing down time the way it slowed for me, to register my astonishment at what my six-year-old client then attested with utter clarity.

“People need to know,” she said.

Sarah’s teacher agreed immediately, and I felt tremendous relief. What was sought would be provided, in a context that would make sense. Stories are expected in a kindergarten classroom; indeed, they possess a ritual importance. Sarah’s teacher, with decades of experience, would know what to do.

That was my cue to move on to the light-hearted tale of mischief, which everyone seemed to enjoy, with broad smiles all around. Then, because I would be leaving my internship soon, we agreed together on a plan for my supervisor to take over the act of transcription: lunches with classmates would continue, and the story project would, too. I would have one more turn with it, meeting a serious-minded Brian the Bear before regretfully ceding the magical binder and clearing out the stash of penciled drafts in my desk.

To Be Continued.

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Out of respect for client privacy, names are always changed. Text and image copyrights held by me. If you enjoyed this piece, please consider sharing it. To subscribe and receive future posts, please look to the upper right on your computer screen, or scroll to the bottom of the page on your mobile device. Thank you for reading.

ONCE UPON A TIME (PART TWO)

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What follows is (Part 2 of) a story about stories and the wisdom of a six-year-old girl, written back when I was working my first of two internships for my master’s degree. To catch up on Part 1, click here.

The day that “Sarah the Cat” laid claim to her human loneliness, I formulated a plan: she could invite one classmate each week to have lunch with us in the guidance room, which for kindergarteners holds no stigma and instead represents a treat. Sarah might gain some status among her peers, and lunch might naturally segue into companionship at recess.

The boy she chose for her first guest was shy and sweet but not the best bet for an aide-de-camp in the project, accompanied by a paraprofessional in case he felt overwhelmed. Sarah’s teacher suggested the next invitee, a girl whose confidence proved unhelpful, with a domineering quality that crowded out the native empathy she might have possessed. Our third guest seemed like a Goldilocks choice—generous, polite, just right!—but nothing came of it.

Not socially gifted myself, in vain I struggled to make small talk that would help the kids learn about each other; like an awkward matchmaker, I even asked about favorite playground games. Sarah gave me a look at one point, and I wondered if I was being too obvious. Despite my efforts on her behalf, there was no sign of a shift—she still floated through her days disconnected.

Meanwhile, Sarah and I kept our Monday morning meetings. The day before our fourth Tuesday lunch, I had brought in all her chapters, typed from my longhand transcriptions and organized in their own slim binder. My internship at the school would be ending relatively soon, and creating books with and for kids was part of the process of saying goodbye. The chapters looked impressively official, dressed up thus. Sarah asked that I reread them to her; she seemed to enjoy hearing even the hardest parts.

The next day I walked down to rendezvous with Sarah and Addie, aka Guest Number 4. We gathered lunch trays, straws, utensils, and assorted condiments, and climbed the stairs, the kindergarteners’ knees bobbing high to accommodate the rise of each step, their trays held carefully aloft. So far, so familiar—but Sarah cast me into the unknown the moment we entered the office. “Could you please get my book and wead it?” she asked, the lost r tugging my heartstrings, while Addie preceded us to the table. “You want me to read it—out loud?” I clarified, hoping I’d misunderstood. “Yes, please,” she said.

What was I going to do? I looked over at Addie, concentrating on her carton of milk, plucking her straw from its cellophane wrapper. How could I subject that curly-headed naïf so unexpectedly to a tale of unremitting loneliness? Over pizza sticks and a small heap of syrupy fruit, no less? I was not thinking fast enough and grasped at a fib. “I’m not sure I have it with me,” I said, pretending to search my backpack. “No, I’m sorry, I don’t have it.” I felt conflicted about the now-outright lie—but there it was.

She persisted, asking me in that case to say it from memory. Again, I demurred. Then came the flash, the genuine inspiration. “What if we write a new chapter today? To a different story?” One thought led to the next. “Maybe Addie can help—if she wants.”

My enthusiasm for the idea was initially unshared. “Okay,” Sarah said. “But can you bring it next time? It’s important.” It’s important. “Alright,” I said. I’d bought myself a little time, but I knew I couldn’t ignore those words. I seated myself across from the girls, pencil at the ready. First we established our new character. Who would Addie like to be? She chose readily.

“Once upon a time, Sarah the Cat and Addie the Easter Bunny…” It was lovely to see both girls giggle at that. Sarah led off from there, but Addie caught right up. As they built their story detail by detail, they looked at each other for affirmation, grinning as they dreamed up mischief.

The plot unfolded as follows: They were at a picnic but wandered away from their blanket, landing them in hot water with their parents, who followed their trail, found them, and condemned them to their rooms with no dinner. Confining myself to prompts up till then, I volunteered a last line: “What a terrible way for a picnic to end!” The girls, together, approved.

To Be Continued.

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Out of respect for client privacy, names are always changed. Text and image copyrights held by me. If you enjoyed this piece, please consider sharing it. To subscribe and receive future posts, please look to the upper right on your computer screen, or scroll to the bottom of the page on your mobile device. Thank you for reading.

“WHY IS THAT A FEAT?”

Lucky Apple

I’ll say it again: I love the directness of children.

Sometimes it provides comic relief, as when, one September not too long ago, the school principal visited the kindergarten classroom where I used to volunteer, to greet the matriculating pupils. A little blond boy, who would become a favorite of mine, studied him quizzically—head cocked, hand on his chin—musing as if half to himself, “I wonder what happened to all of your hair…” The principal’s shiny pate flushed, and he seemed to choke on his words, but gamely he replied that he didn’t know, either.

Often a child’s candor is a refreshing change from the subterfuge of adults, with our emotional trench coats and back alleys, to say nothing of political doublespeak. Tikes playing with trains are the real conductors on the so-called Straight-Talk Express. (There are exceptions, of course, as I’ve acknowledged before.)

Last year I worked with a boy who’d been held back for issues that had been labeled “ADHD.” His family life was chaotic* from morning till night and undermined our therapeutic work during in-home visits in the same way, I’m guessing, that it limited his ability to do homework and engage in his own development. A meeting with faculty and staff at his locally notorious school demonstrated nothing so much as their lack of comprehension for his circumstances.

He and I had one precious office visit—our first visit, before transportation became a problem for his mom. I learned so much! We did one of my favorite focusing activities: I asked him to close his eyes while I struck my singing bowl, then raise his hand when he couldn’t hear its fading resonance anymore.** Then, I asked him to do the same thing, except this time when he could no longer hear the bell, he was to listen for anything else he could hear around him, and raise his hand when he was ready to report back.

I’m not taking authorial license to say that I’ve rarely seen such a look of concentration as on that boy’s face in the sanctuary of the office.

I was surprised and impressed to learn from him that there was more than one clock in the room; I had never noticed. (It wasn’t my space.) He was perfectly still and observant, without evincing the slightest self-consciousness. After, he spoke offhandedly of his excellent hearing. I exclaimed over his ability, in a different exercise, to shift his awareness from the top of his head to his right baby toe, such that both parts grew tingly in turn in response to being noticed; I called it a feat. After I’d defined the word for him, his response was, “Why?” What was so extraordinary? Graciously he seemed to give me the benefit of the doubt.

It’s a feat because it involves executive function. Because that’s an important way to use the brain. Because that’s the very area in which he was considered weak. Because, in fact, many of us barely notice our creaturely existence in this world, except in the most obvious ways. Because, because, because—so many possible answers. But really—why, indeed? It was a good question.

Speaking of feats, the apple pictured above was plucked from the orchard equivalent of Charlie Brown’s Christmas tree. And it was good—tannic and tart. A worthy reminder of many life lessons: a spindly trunk, and branches just laden with fruit.

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*This is a capsule version of his situation, written from my outsider’s perspective, and should—in fairness to his mom especially—be read and understood as such. No piece of writing, however careful, ever tells or ever can tell the full tale. Not that I was endeavoring to, clearly; but I’m conscious of taking a liberty when writing about anyone but myself, and it matters to me to note that, as a caveat.

**I can’t claim to have invented this awesome activity. I think it’s fairly common in the world of mindfulness, but I know that Susan Kaiser Greenland describes it nicely in her book, The Mindful Child.

EMBODIMENT

A quiet space—that’s what I aspire to create with these words, with this page. A space that’s absent the grotesqueries of commerce. No cartoon bunch of bananas vibrating in the margin, begging to be clicked, making threats about “belly fat.” No “before and after” photos meant to terrify us all about the natural course of time and bodily change. Nothing flickering, nothing exploding, nothing exploitative.

If people are diverted by base content online, it is perhaps in part because the visual clutter and speed of media induces a state of stress that actually impairs the higher functions of the brain. In a recent article about affective computing,* Raffi Khatchadourian noted, “The free economy is, in fact, an economy of the bartered self.” One of several reasons that I’m not on social media is that I don’t wish to see my relationships monetized, even marginally. Given the scarcity of time in the average day, the fact that you are reading these words is a tremendous gift to me; the gift I hope to give in return is a space of reprieve. If you feel that, and appreciate it, then we have connected—a beautiful thing.

Speaking of beauty, I’ve just seen a documentary that is pure gorgeousness. Ethan Hawke’s Seymour, true to its subtitle, is an introduction to the pianist and teacher Seymour Bernstein, a man who chose an integrated self over greater fortune and fame. Unlike so many documentaries these days, inflected by the ADHD influence of music videos and reality TV, this film is thoughtful, well-ordered, and humane.

And it contains a number of moments of sweet surprise. When the Beatles appear, mouthing lyrics to besotted fans; when a gospel choir silently sways and claps; when Maria Callas mutely delivers an aria—those moments of rapture are captured and woven together by Mr. Bernstein’s hands moving over the keys. Tears stung my eyes, to feel gathered that way into an embrace. I screen upwards of 100 films a year, for work, and value almost none of them. I love this one. Mr. Bernstein seems to communicate such stillness and integrity that I felt my own character groping for new depths in response. Is there, in life, a better measure of success?

* “We Know How You Feel,” Raffi Khatchadourian, The New Yorker, January 19, 2015

“THIS IS WHAT I FEEL”

As I stated in an introductory post, it’s important to me to include here voices other than my own, and I’m particularly interested in the experiences of those for whom mindfulness is, was, or could have been a saving grace based on childhood challenges of all kinds.

Julia is a woman living in Britain, who was diagnosed in adulthood with autism spectrum disorder. Although busy pursuing post-graduate studies, she graciously took time to share some experiences and reflections with me.

First, would you describe your mindfulness practice?

I aim to do a formal meditation practice every day. In reality, this happens in phases, depending on how I’m feeling and how busy I am. I have a set time, first thing in the morning, because I manage to get things done better if I have a timetable.

I often use the CDs I got from an eight-week mindfulness course to guide my meditation practice, but if I’ve been doing it regularly for a while, I can also do it in silence. I like to mix up different meditations—e.g. walking, body scan, different versions of the same thing by different people. My favorite is probably the 45-minute sitting meditation because [the duration] allows me to really get into it. But it’s also the hardest.

I am currently working through a book, which is set out as a course, and am finding that useful for getting myself into meditation again [after a break]. Some days, I spend part of the meditation timeslot reading, and then do a practice based on what I’ve read.

How is mindfulness helpful to you—whether in general or in relation to autism?

In general, it’s helpful for feeling better about myself and enjoying what I do. It helps me accept limitations and difficult things and make the most of [my abilities].

In relation to autism, I find it helpful for two particular things: 1) trying to notice how I feel, and 2) creating space when things are overwhelming—this could be sensory things, people, or anxiety in a difficult situation.

That kind of space is so valuable. Can you describe how, for you, it’s created?

Quite often when I’m busy, it is easy to feel swept up in tasks and ideas about what I’m doing and need to do—they press in and swirl together. It can feel overwhelming and as though there are no edges to separate what’s happening.

Through practicing mindfulness, you learn to observe those thoughts and activities without being tied up in them. There is a bit of space between you and everything else. The result is feeling more in control, more able to choose what to do, and perhaps also more connected to what’s happening.

It’s a bit of a paradox, isn’t it, how stepping back can lead to feeling more connected.

An analogy might be looking at a painting in a huge gallery. It’s very detailed and wonderful, but you can’t see all of it at once. You see it in a fragmented way. At the same time, you’re also trying to read the information card about it but keep switching between the painting and the card and get all muddled up. Mindful “space” would be like if you were to walk to the other end of the hall. There you can easily see the whole picture. You enjoy just looking for a while, then read the card uninterrupted, then choose specific parts to study based on the reading. It’s all still there, but clearer, and you are able to choose how to view and approach it.

How do you think mindfulness activities might have helped you as a child?

This is hard to say. I was easily absorbed in observing things like insects and animals, and I think I might have been able to transfer that [observation] to internal things, with the right help. Maybe starting by watching external things, then being taught to transfer that skill inwards with concrete examples and suggestions—with care taken by the teacher not to tell me how I “should” be feeling.

That’s a brilliant idea—so simple and so apt.

I was even worse [than I am now] at understanding and identifying feelings when I was young, so I don’t know how successful [such training] would have been, but I could have learned to be kind to myself. I was very empathetic with animals when I was little (and still am), so maybe that could have been used as an analogy to help me understand.

For example: I could tell if a pet was unwell long before my parents noticed, but they always trusted what I said and took it to the vet immediately because I was always right. Maybe there might be a way to help children use that sensitivity to small details to notice changes in themselves and to be kind to whatever they feel, the same way you would never judge a dog or rabbit for being scared or unwell or in a bad mood.

I don’t mean an arrogant, “This is what I feel, so there,” but rather, “This is what I feel. I don’t like it, but I’m still okay—it doesn’t make me a monster.” [For autistic kids] that acceptance might be a first step to being able to identify needs and to ask for help.

I gather you had some unhappy experiences.

I want to make it clear that my parents are wonderful, kind people who did the best they could with an undiagnosed autistic child. I would often get upset and wound-up about things that I couldn’t communicate, and they had no idea what was going on. Also, I’d mistakenly upset people with incorrect word choice or incorrect facial expression [relative to cultural norms], although I didn’t know at the time that I was getting them wrong.

“Monster” is an emotive word, but because nobody knew what was going on, I felt like I was “bad.” Because why else would these things keep happening? I found strong emotions very difficult to handle and had a lot of trouble identifying emotions at all. These are all things that are explained by autism but were a mystery at the time. Mindfulness, along with better understanding, helps to lessen the impact of the “echoes” of those feelings in adulthood.

What do you think it would benefit educators to know about mindfulness in relation to autism, and perhaps especially unidentified and/or undiagnosed autism?

I think utilizing mindfulness could help build confidence in children, and help teachers respond to children who are struggling whatever the cause, e.g. from emotional problems, difficulties at home, poor academic ability or fluency, social difficulties, or poor engagement with the class.

A teacher with a strong personal mindfulness practice would likely be more able to tune in to what a child is communicating / feeling / experiencing. And if teachers feel something negative when interacting with a child, mindfulness could help them notice that feeling and explore what’s going on, both for themselves and for the child, so they can respond constructively.

It’s interesting you say “unidentified autism.” [Mindfulness] would be very important in that case, I think, because it would help teachers to be accepting of all children, regardless of temperament, ability, etc. I often felt rather hopeless at school. Maybe teachers could help create a different experience [for other autistic kids].

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This interview was lightly edited, with Julia’s permission and approval.

 

ONE BELL, FIVE BREATHS

In my last post, I proposed a collection of ideas for incorporating mindfulness into the school day. To begin at the beginning, here’s one about breath.

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All the kindergarten teachers I know seem to have bells or meditation chimes to summon students to attention, and it strikes me that these could be appropriate for any age group. (Having sat through some faculty meetings, where order was called vocally, I think a bell would have been much more effective!)

A particular kindergarten teacher of my acquaintance often follows the ringing of her meditation chime with directions given in a library-quiet voice—a strategy for engaging more active listening. The pure tone and near-whisper strike a peaceful chord that seems to benefit everyone. But there may be still more opportunity in those resonant moments. What if every bell were the signal to take five good, deep breaths and then listen to instructions?

An online course in trauma-focused therapy (through the Medical University of South Carolina) takes what I feel is an excellent approach to teaching deep breathing to kids. Children are taught to lay one hand on their chests (in the manner of the Pledge of Allegiance) and the other hand on their bellies so that the pinky lies above their bellybuttons. They are asked to keep the chest still while swelling and deflating the belly.

I find this technique remarkably calming. Having one hand over my heart and one on my abdomen seems to complete a circuit of comfort. I think we are so much more aware of the touch of others—like a hand on a shoulder—that we often don’t realize how powerful the effect of our own can be. I haven’t yet had time to look this up, but if there isn’t research on this already, I hope that there will be. An “intra” variation on the fascinating subject of interpersonal neurobiology.

A natural question here might be, “Why five breaths, and not three?” Three often feels like a magic number, but my inclination is that while three good breaths can connect us to the value of deep breathing, three can also be done expediently, whereas five breaths seem to require a genuine slowing down, which serves to ground the experience. All this is hypothetical on my part…

There is abundant room for variation in the mindful-bell concept, allowing for developmental differences and energetic needs. I have less experience with older kids at this point, for example, and those savvier about preteens and teens might well approach the breathing differently.

My instinct is that with younger kids, such an activity can be part of rapport-building, while with older kids, some rapport might need to come first and through other means? And that with younger kids, the breathing prompt could be signaled as needed, while with older kids, it might need to be more formally a part of beginnings and endings?

Closed eyes might enhance the practice, if the classroom atmosphere supports that. Standing in a circle facing out, away from others, might help as well. A significant aspect of mindfulness is being truly grounded in one’s own reality, and in group situations, that might require some structured support to deal with self-consciousness, comparisons, and other distractions.

Again, there is room here to experiment. Creativity has an important role to play in mindfulness activities, especially with younger kids. I would only encourage attentiveness to whether a particular creative idea truly supports the desired outcome. If there’s a metaphor involved, is it apt? I recognize the visual appeal of the prompt to children to “smell flowers and blow out candles,” which Jenna mentioned in our interview and which is commonly taught, but I don’t use it because I feel some concern that the direction to smell flowers encourages a fairly shallow form of upper-chest breathing. When I smell things, the action doesn’t tend to reach all the way to my belly, and depth of breath impacts its value.

In closing, thinking about proposing a bell-prompt reminded me of classical conditioning, and I wondered whether more independent-minded thinkers might object to the Pavlovian notion of that. It seems to me that informal conditioning occurs in our lives all the time, however, and that peaceful feelings and enhanced self-regulation are gifts we can give to children that will not only allow for, but also encourage, greater freedom and autonomy.

 

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P.S. It seems there are computer programs and applications that can be programmed to ring a bell periodically. For those who have lots of computer work to do, that might be a nice tool for remembering to take breaks, rest the eyes, and breathe.