I’m not here for empathy

Wednesday 20th September
I’m not here for empathy

I have a banging headache. I am back from the second session of the ‘Nurturing Course for Parents of Children with Autism’. I’m not enjoying it, I feel old and cynical and talked down to. I find the session leaders too generalized, completely naïve and far too empathetic. I’m not there for empathy, I need to acquire a toolbox of coping mechanisms, I want to understand how to break this loop and deep entanglement that I have with my daughter. I want to work on the bits that are ‘my fault’.

I am quiet in the group. Deep down I am resentful for giving up my time, trusting others to come up with ideas to sort out our life. I don’t feel like I am learning anything, I’m being offered ideas, suggestions, processes that I’ve been using since my children were tiny. Praising the good behavior, ignoring the bad, please, don’t patronize.

As a family I think we’re doing all right, I’ve got to the point where we just need to get on with it. I can’t put my daughter through another star chart, if it’s down to me then I just need to sort it. If I am inconsistent with my discipline then I’ll work it out.

At home, I presented my eldest with the news that she doesn’t qualify for the counseling pathway at the Alder Hey mental health unit – she was disappointed, but I’ll find another way. I also presented our new ‘star chart’ – a black sheet of paper with a sheet of gold shiny stars. The idea is that every time one of us performs an act of kindness, a star goes on the chart. They both smile and roll their eyes ‘Not another star chart!’ they both exclaim in unison.

Of course my youngest wants her personal column of stars, we’ll give it a go, a bit of fun perhaps, possibly a distraction, but hardly a life changer.
I’m a bit slow on the uptake as, being a finisher, I stick with things through to the bitter end; but I’m starting to finally understand that when I am kept awake at night by something, it’s because it’s not right. Instead of enduring another 10 weeks of this, I can just say, ‘sorry, it’s not for me. My children’s needs are more complex than the solutions you are offering.’

Phew, and breathe… that wasn’t so difficult – I haven’t done it yet though, I’ll attend next week and offer my apologies. This is all part of my process of learning to say no.


Thursday 28th September
it’s not easy to say no

I couldn’t quite say no, so I attended the support group, again, clearer in my understanding that it’s not for me. They’re a group of caring people and I am grateful that there is a session like this to go to.
But I’m still angry all the time.

In the sharing, after all the positive experiences have been told about star charts and ‘time out homework’, I can’t keep quiet.
‘Well actually…’, I begin, and promptly reflect honestly and kindly that whilst I appreciate that the principles remain the same, I feel that these techniques aren’t fit for purpose for older kids, especially those on the spectrum. The rewards only incubate a whole host of other issues. My daughter got even angrier when I suggested time out, refused point blank to leave the room, which created an even bigger problem for me to deal with. And as for the star chart – this only evoked pity and exasperation from my young humans. I did remember to praise and encourage my girls, which although it elicited only silence, I think was quietly and proudly absorbed.
My honest outburst resulted in many heads nodding in agreement and some very honest reflections from some of the other mums – these processes aren’t working for older kids on the Spectrum.
I feel like a farce. Actually, my girls are doing fine. Granted my youngest’s outbursts have started to scare me, leaving me unsure of how to respond, but compared to these other struggling mothers, I feel like we are coping really well. I have no bruises and we still have fun together.
Whilst helping my youngest with some homework for school, her personal timeline, I discovered a few things. Firstly it was really nice to be asked to help – my eldest just gets frustrated with me – but secondly, it was the events in her life that she considered important.
Her birth, starting nursery, starting reception, finding our first cat Lily Bear, the birth of her cat Juno, finding our second cat Chico, getting our dog Jambo from the Dogs Trust, starting High School. No mention of her parent’s wedding, her trips to South Africa, meeting her cousins for the first time, meeting her best friend, and especially no mention of her Dad, her first performance on stage with him, his death, nothing. When questioned she completely clammed up and shook her head fiercely.

My heart breaks for her, she’s holding on so tightly to her little world that is still real, trying to maintain order and control. Considering all this, a few wild outbreaks of raw emotion, threats of violence, complete anger and frustration with the world around her, it’s understandable, really, isn’t it?

Back to the support group – after lengthy discussions about rewards and penalties, praising good behavior; I just can’t keep quiet. I had to, respectfully of course, whilst also just hoping to open up a dialogue about the ensuing issues related to the reward system, reflect that I believe that it is fundamentally flawed.
It may work with younger children, using charts, and various methods of honouring good behavior, but as the child grows, they become fixated on rewards. If a parent has gone down the financial or material route, the costs can be crippling. In the case of my daughter, who I haven’t bombarded with rewards, she just tells me I am bribing her. She recognizes that it is a handle to turn and a button to press and never misses out on the opportunity to work the situation to her advantage. ‘What’s in it for me?’ is fast coming her mantra in life. ‘What can I get for my good behavior?’

I’m going to bank these thoughts and I’m sure I will return to them but I could do with a really good discussion with other parents of children on the spectrum on how to move forward with it.

There was no discussion to be had in the ‘Support Group’ – a response to my opinions/questions/observations is not in the manual.
I’m working, with my daughter, on getting to the point where the reward for good behaviour comes from the child, a self congratulating pat on the back, recognizing a sense of pride and satisfaction emanating from within, not constantly needing external praise and rewards because as she gets older, the praises are less and less forthcoming. I wonder how this generation of children will fare in the workplace, always needing constant remuneration, rewards and prizes.

Straight from the support group, I went to work. Being with pre school age kids, in the woods, chasing worms, is a complete antidote to the situation that I just left. A common story amongst the mums and carers in the group is a fierce obsession of their children with electrical devices – these are a constant feature in the rewards and penalties system and they seem to result in a violent response to any form of separation or threat of separation from their devices.

Forest School activities engender an ethos of co-operation, respect for nature, respect for self and for fellow humans in nature. It builds a fascination for our natural world, feeds the senses with important things like the sounds of rustling leaves, the path of a spider on the forest floor, the movement of time and the seasons. It is calming and exciting all at once.

Perhaps all these troubled young humans from the support group just need to get outside, to breathe fresh air and get closer to their origins, away from the pull of consumerism and the made up, ever-consuming world of digital alternative unrealities.

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