Getting back on the (water) horse

Last week, I wrote about perfectionism. One of the points I tried to make was the idea that risk-taking (i.e. trying and failing in the process of learning a new skill) can be very difficult for people who are on the autism spectrum. Any sort of failure, big or small, can be viewed as 100% negative—leading to a refusal to try, and/or a meltdown.

This has always been the case for Geordie; he masters new skills quickly (and often immediately because of his tendency not to try anything until he knows he can do it)—it just takes him a little longer to get around to it.

You usually have to wait for that which is worth waiting for.

(Craig Bruce)

One thing we’ve learnt is the art of sitting back and chilling—he’ll get around to it when he’s ready. A couple of cases in point:

♦ riding a tricycle (refused to do it for nearly a year after we bought it, then got on one day and rode off)

♦ ‘writing’ (never engaged in ‘experimental writing’, and refused to hold a pencil and have a go at writing his name until the day he could do it legibly)

Once a skill is finally nailed, everything is rosy—until something happens when performing said skill, resulting in failure.

Getting back on the horse at this point can prove difficult—moreso if the failure also involves physical pain of some sort.

This happened twice to Geordie last January during our annual coast break.

Both of these ‘failures’ involved water.

The first—a spectacular face-first dumping off the inflatable boogie board by a particularly vicious wave.

The second was a little more traumatic—first go at stand up paddling (SUP) and doing really well despite nerves, only to get stuck and have to step off the SUP board right into a bed of oyster shells. Bare feet.

At first, I didn’t think ‘the dumping’ had phased him—he came up sputtering but smiling. Said he ‘needed a break’ and gave the board to me—then refused to use it again for the entire holiday.

The ‘oyster shell incident’ was a little more obvious. His feet were a mess. I wouldn’t have gone back on the board after that either. (In fact, to be honest, I never went on that board in the first place. There’s no way I’d be able to stay upright with my lack of balance. Interpret that as you will.)

Many weeks before our coast trip this year, I asked Geordie if he was going to go boogie boarding or SUPping. The answer was an emphatic ‘NO’.

I left it.

No point in pursuing or pushing or even gently encouraging as it only serves to cause a deeper digging in of heels.

For the first few days, Geordie was happy to play in the waves but refused all offers of a turn on the boogie board.

We said nothing. Didn’t push. Only offered once each time.

Then this happened:

Boogie Board

We didn’t make a fuss. (Have learned in the past if we draw attention to something we are super excited about, it often ceases to happen.)

A couple of days later, Ashlea and her father decided they wanted to hire SUP boards.

Casually, from behind my Kindle, I asked Geordie if he wanted to go too.

I nearly fell off my chair.

Why?

Because this happened:

SUPping

I am happy to say I was totally wrong in my assumption he wouldn’t get back on the (water) horse(s) this year.

He did—and he nailed it both times!

Maybe it was because we didn’t push it.

Perhaps because he had his sister there right alongside him.

And likely owing to the fact he is growing—in maturity and resilience (and also physically!!)

Whatever the reason, it was worth the wait.

Life is always a matter of waiting for the right moment to act.

(Paulo Coelho)

 

 

 

 

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Poor loser or perfectionist?

Lots of kids (and many adults) struggle with this — an intense dislike of losing. So intense, at times, that behaviour becomes erratic and highly unsociable, and blame features as a key player.

Often, people ‘grow out’ of this and learn to accept that life is about losing sometimes. Some people never seem to experience it. And then there are the others — the ones that continue this behaviour well into their supposedly mature years (a couple of young, male Australian tennis players come to mind here).

Up until now, I’ve thought that we would need to come to terms with Geordie being in this latter category.  I’m pleased to say I no longer think this way. There is the occasional lapse, but for the most part, he has ‘poor loser’ characteristic under control.

For the longest time, I have considered his reaction to losing to be just that — the actions of a poor loser. But in hindsight, and upon reflection (Aren’t those two things just grand? I wish they’d show themselves to me earlier!) I am not so sure anymore. I think there may be more to it.

I’ve had time to formulate my thoughts on this matter over the last ten days or so while we’ve been away on our annual migration to the South Coast. This time to think happily coincided this year with the realisation that Geordie no longer seriously loses his cool when he’s not winning.

Batemans Bay Mini Golf has been a key feature of our annual coast vacation for as long as I can remember. It’s fun, but many of the holes are rather frustrating. Geordie loves mini golf but has always hated not being able to make par. It took me a while to realise, but this year was the first year I haven’t had to take him aside to ‘give him the talk’. This may be partly due to the increase of his skill level, but there were many holes he (we) didn’t do so well on. He only got frustrated once, and it was almost ‘blink, and you’ll miss it’.

Interestingly, it was a comment from his sister (who, you may remember, is normally very supportive — except when it comes to poor losing) that got me thinking. She got a bit huffy at that ‘blink, and you’ll miss it’ moment, and I pointed out that it had been the only time in the whole course. As the words came out of my mouth, I had a mental ‘wow’ moment and such was the start of my ponderings.

♦ What have we done in the past that has finally sunk in?

♦ Have we been doing anything different lately?

♦ What is the real reason behind this behaviour?

In past years, we have tried many different strategies to get Geordie to ‘be happy even if he lost’. These strategies were not only applied to mini golf but to other competitive games including board games, Wii (or other computer-based) games and tennis. Most commonly used ploys were:

◊ talk at Geordie before playing about how the game was just for fun, it didn’t matter who won and so on.  Not particularly effective.

◊ talk at Geordie during the game about the same things. Not particularly effective.

◊ stop playing until he calmed down, then resume. Follow this stop-start pattern for the duration of the game. Not particularly effective and rather frustrating for other players.

◊ stop playing altogether and pack up, whether or not we were finished. Not particularly effective, frustrating for other players and often resulted in meltdown behaviour.

◊ let him win or don’t score.  Highly effective regarding maintaining a sense of calm BUT not satisfying for other players AND only made things worse when we actually tried/scored the next time.

◊ refuse to play (a particular game) for x amount of time.  Effective from the point of view of eliminating tension BUT still didn’t teach him anything AND things just as bad when we did finally bring the game out again.

I was ready to give up and just accept that this was how things were.

Then, Geordie’s Year 2 teacher introduced him (and us) to the ‘cooperative game’.

cooperative gamesLet me just put it out there right now — cooperative games are an absolute godsend! Why? Because everyone plays together, as a team (and there is only one team) and everyone wins OR everyone loses. They also rely heavily on strategy and thinking ahead — something Geordie is brilliant at.

The first games we got onto were the Forbidden games — Forbidden Island and Forbidden Desert.

Since then we have also discovered Pandemic, Hanabi and Castle Panic. There are extensions to Castle Panic, two of which Geordie bought today, and a brilliant Harry Potter inspired cooperative game the rest of us are keen to get, but Geordie isn’t. (Don’t ask me why because I have no idea.)

Playing these games has allowed me to work with Geordie on our ‘too bad we lost, but wasn’t it fun’ attitude. The great thing is, a couple of them are really hard to win, so we’ve had lots of opportunity for practising this attitude.

And, while I don’t think cooperative games can lay sole claim on Geordie’s new ability to accept losing, I do think they’ve played a major part.

There are other areas, too, where the need for perfection has dictated Geordie’s behaviour. Drawing, writing, riding a bike — in fact, the initial attempt and eventual uptake of any new skill have often been delayed by the fear of failure — or not being perfect. Any attempt to push him to try before he’s ready has resulted in some sort of meltdown behaviour.

However, there are also areas where this need to ‘win’ hasn’t been apparent. The one that springs to mind is the receipt of awards. I taught a boy years ago, very similar to Geordie in a number of ways, who would get extremely upset to the point of meltdown if he didn’t receive an award in our fortnightly assembly. In hindsight, I can see he didn’t begrudge the other students their awards but felt he’d failed or wasn’t good enough because he didn’t get one. This has never been an issue for Geordie.

Being me, I tend to like to analyse the reasons behind behaviours. As always, this is my personal opinion based on our experiences and may very well be wrong. But for what it’s worth:

I think poor sportsmanship, especially in children on the spectrum, is less about the desire to WIN and more about feeling they have FAILED and are not PERFECT. When this happens, there is a tendency to become overwhelmed by the feeling of failure and not know how to deal with it.

That’s my two cents worth anyway, and I believe it is true for Geordie. Everyone is different. I’m not saying it’s a good thing, but sometimes knowing a reason behind a behaviour helps you deal with it more effectively.

 

chess
Image courtesy of cooldesign at FreeDigitalPhotos.net

 

PS. The little rotter just beat me at Chess — again! I’ve beaten him once or twice. Absolute pure luck as I have no idea how I did it — but I’m pleased to report he took those defeats really well. (He was probably in as much shock as I was.) Now that we have reached the stage where we can play competitively with a positive outcome if he loses — how do I stop him gloating when he wipes the floor with me in Chess??

 

 

The Power of Siblings

EPSON MFP image
Ashlea and Geordie in Rotorua NZ (2010)

I’ve undertaken a major clean out of my study over the last couple of weeks. It has taken that long, not because my study is huge but because it’s been a while — quite a while. As Geordie put it, in his characteristic ‘say it as it is’ way: “Have you ever tidied up or dusted in here?”

One of the last things I rediscovered was a pile of photos I’d long ago intended to frame and display; constructing what a friend of mine terms as ‘a wall of shame’ — photos of the kids from all stages of their lives.

This particular photo really resonated with me because it absolutely captures the relationship Geordie has with his sister.

I often wonder what Geordie would have been like if he’d been the oldest — or only — without his big sister to guide him. I suspect he still would have made brilliant progress, making us proud every day, but I’m under no illusions that some things may well have been quite different.

Ashlea is only two years older than Geordie but she’s always taken him under her wing, watched out for him, calmed him, inspired him, motivated him and looked after him.

How?

♥ She’s pulled him out of  meltdowns

For a short while, Ashlea was the only one who could do this. I don’t know how but if she came into the room and sat with him, he instantly calmed down.

♥ She gives him the courage to try something that overwhelms him

Whether it’s been getting him onto a ferry, into a crowded room, back into class at school … Ashlea occasionally has the power to make Geordie feel it’s all going to be okay.

♥ She awakens his creativity

The games they’ve played together over the years have been creative, imaginative and sometimes downright hilarious. At first, he could only play like this with Ashlea but gradually he came to introduce his own ideas and initiate the games himself (and by himself). These days, the ‘games’ have turned into series of side-splitting iMovies — holidays or special events are not complete without at least one being made. (And Geordie now also does these with his best mate — one day, his mother and I will be walking the red carpet!)

♥ She teaches him

Ashlea taught Geordie the alphabet, and then how to read, using foam bath letters! She encouraged him to write and draw and to ride a bike. Many of his skills he has learned from her — either directly or by watching her and wanting to be like her.

♥ She keeps an eye out for him

Ashlea used to watch Geordie like a hawk at school. She’d check up on him and go to his teacher’s assistance if needed. One time, he’d managed to escape to the other side of the school fence with a friend during class — Ashlea was the one who noticed, alerted the staff and then coaxed him back in. She included him when her friends came around — and gently counselled them if they dared to make fun of him or exclude him. These days, ‘keeping an eye out for him’ sounds more like bossing and nagging — but I’m sure her heart’s in the right place.

 ♥ She accepts him for who he is

This is the most important, and something I see time and again with kids who have siblings with special needs.  I can count on the fingers of one hand the number of times Ashlea has complained about her brother receiving special treatment. She’s not embarrassed by him, and she doesn’t try to change him.

Many of these aspects are common among all siblings — regardless of age, sex or need — however, for the parent of a child with special needs, the relationship the child has with his siblings can sometimes be the saviour.

As parents, we don’t want to be overdoing the ‘carer’ factor, but allowing siblings to take care of each other to a certain extent has to be beneficial for everyone.

For me, it’s allowed me the time to take a back seat for my own wellbeing. It’s also afforded me the opportunity to learn.

For Geordie, it’s helped him develop into the person he is today — creative, self-assured and more willing to experience new things and work through those that are overwhelming.

And for Ashlea — I think it’s made her a more resilient, confident and tolerant person. She was always going to be like this, but her relationship with Geordie has, I believe, strengthened these traits. She’s an amazing kid!

Power to sibling relationships 

Three things I’ve learnt about Asperger’s and Primary School

Upon the completion of Primary School, I figure it’s time to reflect on the first 8 years of Geordie’s schooling. (Note: I’m including Preschool here as well.)

It’s been an absolute roller coaster of a ride.

I’m not talking about one of those sad little roller coasters that don’t require serious safety harnesses either. The roller coaster ride we’ve been on has included bone-shaking spirals, heart-stopping triple loops and never-ending corkscrews with the added bonus of surprise sprays of water,  pitch-black tunnels where the unexpected awaits and sheer frustration at the waiting times. It’s been exciting, satisfying and damn-right scary at unpredictable intervals throughout the whole ride.

I love roller coasters — and not only because they are the only showground ride I can go on without vomiting. I love the fear of the unknown, the thrill and the grand feeling of accomplishment at the end.

I feel the same about Geordie’s Primary School years. There have been highs and lows, times of terror and frustration, unexpected twists and turns and then, the smooth ride to the end with the bone-shuddering stop and the feeling of elation at having survived.

We’ve learned a lot in the last eight years and I’m struggling to select the most important gleanings. I’m determined, however, to limit myself to three (as three is the magical number in writing).

Not all teachers ‘get it’ — but those who do make up for those who don’t.

Without naming grade levels, I can say with confidence the mix of brilliantbarely average teachers has been 50/50. The brilliant teachers have seen the good in Geordie and worked with him (and me) to highlight this. A couple of these teachers had some shocking times with Geordie — one for well over a term — but the difference between these teachers and the ‘barely average’ ones is that they didn’t give up, and they didn’t take it personally. Geordie blossomed under the ‘brilliant’ teachers and ‘plodded’ with the others.

As the parent — you are sometimes the only advocate for your child.

Teachers do it tough in Primary School — I know, I’m one of them. However, this does not mean they should be allowed to do things that disadvantage your child. There has to be give and take in the teacher-student relationship. Children should not be expected to conform constantly if the teacher is unwilling to do so. As a parent — if your child is coming home every day and having a meltdown then there is something wrong and you need to find out what. Staying silent and hoping it will get better, or not wanting to rock the boat makes you as bad as the teacher who doesn’t get it. Harsh — but if the parent won’t advocate relentlessly for their child, then who will?

Being an advocate doesn’t mean you can’t be kind.

I’ll admit it now — I have made a couple of Geordie’s past teachers cry. The tears came when I was being relentless in my pursuit to find a solution for Geordie with some matter. I don’t regret my motives, but on reflection I know I could have been a bit kinder. It’s a fine line — particularly difficult when people don’t have emotion metres on their foreheads.

On the whole, Geordie’s primary school experience has been positive. I cannot honestly say that even the worst years were all bad. There are positives in everything and every experience has made us both grow and learn in some way.

I cannot finish this without commenting, however, that the last two and a bit years (I say ‘a bit’ because one of the three years had that horror term in it – through no fault of the brilliant teacher) have been spectacular. Fabulous teachers who understood where Geordie was coming from and have appreciated him for him. We’ve worked together as a team and have helped Geordie achieve spectacular milestones.

I’m sad that it’s ended, to be honest.

I’m scared for the new roller coaster ride of high school, but still anticipating the highs and lows and twists and turns. I’m expecting the same level of excitement and fear. I hope the ride will be as spectacular as the primary version.

roller coaster ID-10082551
Image courtesy of ponsulak at FreeDigitalPhotos.net