Friday, February 18, 2011

No Escape for Uncomfortable Feelings

My wife and son have a session with a child psychologist every Thursday. The primary purpose of these sessions is for my wife to play with Kai while receiving coaching on the DIR®/Floortime method of play therapy so that she can better engage with him and help foster social interactions.

Lately, every session has had the same pattern. Kai would pick a toy, play for a little while, but then, invariably, something would cause him to get upset. He might get frustrated that he can’t do something, or be told that he is making too much of a mess, or just run out of time. After awhile, he would try to hurt the therapist, my wife, or himself, and would need to be physically restrained while the therapist tried to peacefully get him calmed down.

As this continued week after week, my wife has grown frustrated. What good is all this? What progress is he making? When he gets upset and tries to hurt someone, why don’t we just yell at him? At least threatening him gets him to stop trying to hurt us; why do we need to do all of this therapy instead?

We met with the therapist the other day to address our concerns and gain a better understanding of the direction she was headed.

As she explained it, many kids with autism, like our son, have certain feelings that are uncomfortable for them and they just want to make these feelings stop. Kai’s tendency is to avoid feelings of disappointment and sadness. Before, when those feelings arose in a session, he would play with the numbers on the toy or real telephone in the room, or draw numbers on a sheet of paper. Withdrawing into his own world, particularly one filled with his beloved numbers, was a form of escape for him.

However, rather than letting him continue to escape from his uncomfortable feelings, his therapist has been trying to get him to actually feel the disappointment or sadness. Toward that, she moves the telephones and everything else with numbers out of the room before Kai gets there. Now, he has to face his feelings. But, because they are so uncomfortable for him, rather than feel sad, he will often go straight to anger instead. I think there is a fine line between anger and sadness. Anger is easy. Sadness is hard. And so, he seems to explode every week.

But, where is this going?

The thought is that as Kai gets more familiar with these feelings that he has been avoiding for so long, he will become desensitized toward them. Eventually, he will not go straight to anger. He will learn to tolerate sadness and disappointment.

To help build his tolerance, the therapist wants us to empathize with his feelings and express them in an appropriate way. So, for instance, we may say, “I know you wanted to finish that project. Oh, it’s so disappointing that we ran out of time.” He may not be able to express these feelings himself, but is comforted by knowing that we can relate and are expressing his feelings for him. Over time, he will be able to do more of this on his own. And, as he does so, he will stay in a regulated state rather than immediately getting angry.

She also explained that while yelling and threatening him may have a short-term effect of stopping his immediate bad behavior, it does not have the longer-term benefits of teaching him how to cope. Instead, what he learns is that loud voices and threats are used to get someone to do something you want them to do. And that is certainly not the lesson we want him to learn.

This method that we are trying works slowly. It takes patience. Sometimes it is hard to tell if we are making progress. But, a quick fix usually isn’t best for the long term. We’re looking to build a strong foundation for our son’s future. And so, we will stick with this.


  1. I did this when I worked in a preschool but it is SO important for kids of all ages, especially those on the spectrum.

    We have an emotion chart at camp and one of my kids liked to read it. The emotion he latched onto was jealous, so now he'll flop down and go "Molly. I feel... jealous."

    Also, I wish you guys were in my area! Kai could come play soccer with my SN team!!

  2. Interesting that he latched onto "jealous."

    Ha, yeah it would be fun if Kai could play soccer with you guys.


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