Thursday, May 12, 2016

More powerful than the bully!

Tia was a 13-year-old girl and Leo an 8-year-old boy. Both had autism and came together once a week for art therapy. Their relationship had come a long way in that they were able to work together on the same piece of paper in their own distinctive styles which was not the case when they first began. Eventually, they completed each others' work, crossed boundaries that were at first rigid and guarded, exchanging comments and sharing stories.

Slowly the dynamics of this little art therapy dyad managed to open up the fiercely protected emotional world of Tia and Leo whose artwork began to shift from the literal to the metaphorical. Individuals with ASD find it difficult to express emotions due to the abstract nature of feelings. Masters of literal representation, when it comes to symbolic expression, they can be extremely challenged.

In one particular session, both Tia and Leo were given a directive to draw each other. The goal was to encourage thinking about the other, beyond the self. After they completed their artwork, both children were asked to talk about their images. The conversation led to individual likes and dislikes and Tia shared that she hated was being bullied in school. She explained that she was pushed around by boys in her class who called her 'lazy'. Spurred on by Tia's sharing, Leo, who was usually very defensive and emotionally reserved, declared that he too disliked being bullied in school and spoke about his experiences. 

Tia and Leo's artwork

The above disclosure from both children led to the golden opportunity to express and address a fear-inducing occurrence in their lives. At times even though circumstances may not change, our perception of the circumstances, how we internalise and assimilate them in our memories can change. Hence, Tia and Leo were asked to draw the bullies, giving them a tangible form within the safety of the art therapy room. Both children made images of their respective bullies (see figure) and were then asked to contain the bullies within boundaries. The idea was to literally and symbolically imprison the bullies within the boundaries and take away their power. As the image shows, Tia and Leo drew substantial walls around their bullies, pointing out to each other where the walls needed reinforcement. 

The session was a wonderful illustration of how joint art therapy sessions encourage open sharing and mutual support between children. The artwork acts as a buffer to process difficult and threatening emotional content while the therapist provides the containment and direction required for transformation and growth. 

Wednesday, May 4, 2016

The Lion King of Ventnor!

A couple of days ago I received an email from Mo’s care staff about an ‘unfortunate’ incident that happened over the weekend in Ventnor, the tiny coastal town on the Isle of Wight where Mo goes to school.  Mo has now earned ‘Level 2’ independence meaning that he can go into town by himself unaccompanied or shadowed by his care staff. This feat was highly anticipated over the past year and once surmounted was hailed as a huge stepping stone, a feather in Mo’s cap up until two days ago when it was threatened by a couple of hooligans who happened to be on High Street Ventnor the same time as Mo.

Mo had gone shopping for his toiletries to Tesco and in his words “mama there were these hooligans on the street; one was riding a motorbike and tried to hit the other on his face. They were making a lot of noise and then one of them called me a midget”. Apprehensively I asked Mo “what did you do, were you scared?” to which he replied, yes I was scared but I went into Tesco, bought my body soap and when I came out they were still there but I just walked back to school”. Infuriated at the goons behaviour and hurt for my son I asked Mo whether he would like to be shadowed again into town. Quite honestly I was hoping he would say exactly what he did which was, “ Not at all!” Suddenly the hooligans became transformed into pathetic little mice and my Mo became the lion king of Ventnor!

The point of sharing the above anecdote is this: when you raise your children to be proud, self- respecting individuals mindful of their weaknesses and cognizant of their strengths, you are in fact empowering them with the confidence that you have passed onto them as loving and validating parents. Despite Mo’s enormous challenges, he has the spirit of an angel and the will of a fighter. Had he been sidelined, pitied and underestimated would he have coped so well with the aforementioned event? By all measures he should at least have been somewhat shaken! But when I spoke to Mo the day after the incident it was as if he didn’t give a hoot. In fact I was told by his staff that he had been singing through the weekend. Bravo Mo, keep on believing in yourself, we are with you!

                        “It is not the strength of the body that counts, but the strength of the spirit.” 
J.R.R. Tolkien