Wednesday, March 6, 2019

THE UNLIKELY DUO: Pairing a mainstream child with a special stream child for art therapy

I wasn’t sure if it would work, but bringing together 8-year- old Andy (pseudonym), a mainstream child who is intellectually mature for his age and 10-year-old Tim (pseudonym) who is in a special stream and diagnosed with inattentive ADHD, was worth a try. I had been seeing both boys individually for art therapy for quite some time before I decided to pair them for once-a-week art therapy sessions with a focus on their social skills, that being one of the reasons why they came to me in the first place.

Andy has a fascination for numbers. He wants to be an architect and he loves to construct fairly ambitious structures and complicated board games with art materials and found objects. Tim, on the other hand, is gentle and gregarious and has an undying passion for movies, film stars and animated characters. He loves to draw and talk about the movies he has watched and his favourite film stars. Both Tim and Andy are polar opposites as far as their interests are concerned but the one thing they have in common is their joy of artmaking.

The fact that Tim and Andy are so different is what struck me as an opportunity to bring them together for their mutual benefit. I felt that the strength of one child would compensate for the challenges of the other. For instance, Tim is highly creative and a perfectionist but his tendency to be controlling has, in the past, lead to rigid behaviours in social setups. Andy, on the other hand, is funny and laid back but struggles with focusing outside his busy head-space and that presents its own set of challenges when it comes to relationships and social situations.

So, banking on their common interest in art and the attachment that they have to me within a therapeutic context, I began to see Andy and Tim for joint sessions. The first few times they came together were fairly challenging as resistance was strong from both ends. Not only did the boys struggle to share space and time, but they were also reluctant to collaborate,  challenged each other’s boundaries and my ability to contain them. At one stage I was ready to give up and felt that my well-intentioned idea was not working but I chose to go along with my gut feeling that things would turn. And then slowly the dynamics between the boys began to change. I had to face the storm to ride the wave!

By structuring the sessions to create opportunities for the gratification of Tim and Andy’s individual needs, setting boundaries that helped me in managing their behaviours and granting independence and control alternatively to both boys, I was able to plant the seeds of a bond that I continue to nurture in our weekly sessions.

Tim and Andy's joint creations
Both boys look forward to the art therapy sessions and await each other’s arrival at the studio. They have learned to accommodate one other, compromise when necessary and collaborate, at times through facilitation from my end. The unlikely duo has proved to me that the power and process of the group (no matter how small) within a therapeutic context is undeniable.

On another note, my experience with Andy and Tim got me thinking how wonderful it would be for schools to promote inclusivity in the true sense of the word. Not only in schools though, but children of typical/mixed/different abilities also have so much to teach and learn from each other in all spheres of life. It is such a loss and tragedy for all our children to deny or not create opportunities for integration and inclusion.

For enquiries into art therapy with me, go to

Tuesday, January 15, 2019

The regressive mindset.

I couldn’t be prouder of Mo who has a 3-9 pm job at McDonald's as their drive-thru cashier. Mo is fulfilling a dream that began when he was 11 years old and was actualized at 21 years after loads of hard work coupled with immense anxiety and self-doubt brought about by his autism. “You did it!” I tell Mo, but it does not end there because Mo's dream is already growing bigger as he continues to dream of more.

However, this is not what I really want to talk about here. It is what my second born Murad, who is 19 years old, said to me the other day. He shared that his supervisor at a local concern here in Singapore asked him how he felt about having an older brother with special needs and how he (Murad) was surprised, almost offended that such a question would even be asked. “As if people with special needs are not like you or me!” Murad stated. Quite honestly, had I been asked the same question about having a child with special needs, I don’t think I would have shared Murad's reaction, in fact, I would have expected the question and then gone on to talk about my journey and so on. Nevertheless, Murad is a child who, by virtue of being raised in a home where differences are not labelled as ‘inferior’ or considered an ‘affliction’, rather as challenges that must be dealt with and overcome, has grown up without prejudice against people who are differently able. I was delighted by Murad's comment that day and felt reassured that my husband and I had managed to raise our children without the preconceptions that he and I had grown up with.

Ready to go to work!
I am in no way downplaying the hard work and the struggles of caregivers of differently abled children and for that matter the carryover of the challenges to the siblings, but it is the perception of these challenges that precipitate stigma, discrimination and bias. This perception is mediated through language, beliefs, attitudes, government policies and so on.

As an example take our everyday language through which we might be unsuspectingly passing on messages that can have long-term ramifications for future generations. With regards to how we refer to differently abled individuals, I found an interesting blog that talks about whether to call a person with autism 'autistic' or 'someone with autism' Though this may not come across as a critical debate, it begs consideration and mindfulness about how we may be influencing people around us.

Back in Pakistan, I continue to hear words like ‘retarded’ and ‘pagal’ or ‘mad’ referring to individuals with special needs or mental health issues and it irks me immensely. Whereas earlier I would reprimand the use of such discriminatory language, I have changed my stance to bringing awareness to the sources of these deep-rooted biases and taboos that have nurtured centuries of regressive mindsets and dispositions.

I believe that firstly, the change needs to come from the very families and homes of differently abled individuals or those with mental health issues. As caregivers, siblings and friends, stand with your loved ones, speak for them and love them for who they are. Don't hold them back by not taking them to parks, malls, family gatherings and events just in case they might draw attention or censure. If you encounter offensive language or behaviour, take issue by educating and then advocating.

When Mo tells me that he cannot count money fast enough at the drive-thru and sometimes the customers complain, I draw his attention to the fact that in his first month in the job a customer wrote a wonderful note to McDonald's congratulating them on employing such a pleasant and polite worker. The charmer that Mo is, he often responds, "Thank you for raising me so well mama". However, for the future, I am preparing Mo to seek the understanding of dissatisfied customers by communicating his challenges to them so that he can stand up for himself.