What follows is the continuation of a story of my work with a little boy with autism and his family. To learn more read the first post and participate in the conversation in the comments below!
I’ve written elsewhere on the value of joining a child. But this afternoon with Jay I explored further the line between joining and inviting him from his own world into mine. It began with hands-on gentle, guided movement – as so much of my work does. When I entered his playroom Jay was pretty isolated. He acknowledged my presence and seems quite comfortable for me to approach him but did not look directly at me and continued with his self-regulation. At the time he was spinning a jelly-rubber toy around his hands very rapidly, rocking forward and backward while standing, and periodically repeating several phrases. When I approached him I did so from behind, below his eye level and from the side, not sneakily but like I might a unknown dog – with loving intent and motive but carefully so as not to appear confrontational or offensive (as compared to defense, rather was with with a desire to offend.).
As I recall he was standing so when I put my hands an obvious easily-accessible area was his waist. I placed my hands on his waist, just above his hips and joined him in a gentle rocking. There are many different ways to join or invite physically. The clearest is if a child says “No” or removes my hand to respect their wishes. The opposite end of this spectrum is a child who places my hands on his body. Later in the less Jay did these but moving my hand from his calf to his foot, and saying “foot.” But beginning with Jay this afternoon I wasn’t looking for feedback and engagement from him, rather looking to join him physically in his gentle, isolated rocking.
In a case like this I tend to ask myself questions:
- How much tone do I feel under my hands? (I attempt to tone-match.)
- How comfortable do I think my hands are on his right now?
- Do I think there is there anything I could do that might make him more comfortable in this moment?
- What is my best guess about how comfortable he is right now? Physically? Emotionally?
- What subtle movement do I feel with my hands or see with my eyes?
- How can I further join in or support those movements that he is already doing?
With Jay there was a slight rocking forward and backward and I followed him in that movement. I specifically did not try to encourage him verbally, physically, or even in my internal desire for him to increase or change his rocking. Actually, verbal and physical cues often come from the internal desire so it is useful to also ask:
- What do I want for him right now?
If the answer is “to change” then it is essential to back off and change that attitude.
I staid like that, behind Jay with my hands on his hips for 5 minutes or more, supporting him and following his rocking. Never once did he look at me or make a request but nor did he push my hands away, walk off or disengage – which I know from experience that he will do if he doesn’t like a specific stimulus.
That is physical joining – an attitude of support that has no need for a person to be different than they are, and then the physical actions that support that attitude. I think that this kind of being met physically is a very rare experience for children or adults, and all can benefit from it. There is an area of research called “Skin-to-Skin” in mother’s nursing their babies that looks into this sort of connection. There are also studies showing the benefiting of joining in social dance (Tango, Ballroom Dance, etc.) which discuss this physical connection. Working with people with this kind of connection builds trust and feels good. Being touched without agenda invites the person being touched to experience themselves more clearly and establishes trust.
Inviting through movement is joining taken to it’s next logical step. In inviting someone through movement I am staying true to a compassionate attitude and the desire to be of service, but also asking if the person I am with would like a subtle change. Questions that I ask myself when I am inviting include:
- What do I believe is the most useful thing I can do to help or support right now?
- Would he be more comfortable if I…?
- What do I think would feel good for him right now?
- What is he already doing that I can support?
- Then, what of what he is already doing can I add a very small variation to build upon?
- What is he already doing that I can add to?
- What is he most interested in? Why? How can I make that even more engaging?
The desire to help is still present, but in invitation I am looking to add to the pre-existing situation.
This was the case with Jay later in the lesson when he was lying down on my table. He had his legs crossed one on top of the other, with only one foot on the ground. If you try lying on your back on the floor, with your legs crossed, you’ll find that it frequently requires a great deal of muscular contraction in the thigh of the standing leg. This was the case with Jay. Instead of uncrossing his legs, which would have been counter to what he was already doing, I placed one of my hands on his top knee, and applied just enough (and not more!) pressure to connect to his leg and take over some of the effort of keeping that leg in standing. In Anat Baniel’s Intro. To Health Backs DVD there is a lesson that entails crossing the knees and tilting. If you do that lesson you will find that doing that physical action with a variety of variations requires less and less physical force. You learn how to do the movement better. When I placed my hand on Jay’s knee he immediately relaxed his leg. I then began to tilt both crossed legs slowly left and right together, while making sure that I was comfortable myself and could control the weight of his legs and wouldn’t let them fall. (This point is important: if I had been uncomfortable myself or had let his legs slip and fall it would have jarred Jay out of the attention he was beginning to pay to what we were doing. He was, in a way, trusting me with the weight of his legs and I didn’t want to “betray” that trust.) What I was doing here was joining his activity – supporting him crossing his legs – and then adding variations to that activity. I wasn’t making request of Jay that were difficult or counter to his activity. Rather, I was engaging with his movements in a way that added to them and made them easier to do. Eventually we together with tilting his legs so far that the foot of the top leg reached all the way to the ground and both feet were touching. This is actually a very complex activity, done genteelly and slowly, that I would not attempt with most adults. Because Jay and I were so absorbed in physicality of that movement, I was able to invite him to tilt his legs almost to the floor.
Sometimes children (and adults) aren’t ready to be invited to anything new. When I have had a full day of work I may not want something new, either! Joining them where they are physically and supporting their physical actions is a safe bet. There are other times when the person may be more interactive and engaged and interested in new experiences. Then, applying the same attitude, begin to invite them towards subtle differences from what they are already doing and notice how they respond.
Reaching Complex Positions
I have some final commentary on the knees-crossed position I’ve just described. That is a complex, challenging movement for most adults and children. When I demonstrated the same position on Mary during the same lesson, she could not comfortably take the foot of the crossed leg all the way to the ground. We could have tried and I think she would have succeeded, but not without tightening her thighs and belly, and probably experiencing some pain. Any given final position is not the desired outcome. Granted, we find reaching a specific goal to be very satisfying, but the purpose of my movement lessons with Jay or any process of learning cannot be solely about the end result. Jay learns much more deeply when he is deeply interested himself. Actually, with children with autism it is quite difficult to get them to learn anything that they aren’t interested in and self-motivated by. Adults are slightly easier to fool – we are used to pushing and forcing ourselves to learning things that we “don’t want to.” But compare two different learning experiences. One is being shown around Italy by a beautiful Italian host, taken to all of the best restaurant in Rome, and touring the Roman ruins. The other, stuck in a high school Italian class where everyone is restless and cramped, no one has or wants to cultivate a real Italian accent, and the class would rather be outside enjoying the sun.
The key here is that in learning anything, be it complex physical positions, new ways of thinking, or helping Jay grown out of autism, we have to start with tiny steps. Will Jay continue to improve without my hand on his knee, supporting the release of his thighs? Almost certainly. But by adding in small variations – moving his legs side to side, and then tilting his legs until both feet are on the ground – we are creating neurological connections where previously then did not exist. To top that, he is interested and engaged in the activity. It is impossible not to be of increasingly complex movements happening slowly to our bodies (Don’t believe me? Try it!). By holding very loosely the goal of increased physical ease, seeing what Jay was already doing, joining, and then inviting him to new variations together we reached new levels of physicality and thereby new neural connections. It is useful to remember with Jay and with ourselves that the quickest path to rapid change is small, gentle steps.