Huma's blog: reflections on autism, art therapy, parenting, mental health issues and all about Mo!

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 www.colouredcanvas.net

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' https://www.parents.com/health/special-needs-now/should-we-say-with-autism-or-autistic-heres-why-it-matters/. 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. 

Sunday, July 22, 2018

The paradox in raising a child with special needs

Mo bought a pair of sunglasses yesterday and he is loving his new look. I can tell they make him feel all grown up and super cool. Today, when his dad and I accompanied him on the bus, in order to familiarize him with the new route he has to take for his social skills group, Mo sat behind me, sunglasses and all, smiling broadly. Then, I heard him break into a song and suddenly my antennas went up. Who was he sitting next to? Would they think he was strange singing to himself? Would they judge or label him and so on and so forth? At once I turned around and whispered to Mo “you don’t sing in the bus” and the very next moment I chided myself silently “You’ve done it again Huma! So what if Mo is singing? So what if this is not the norm? Mo is happy, let him be, this is who he is. If the guy next to him finds him strange then that is his problem, not Mo’s’”!

Yet truly, is it really that simple? The fact is, it’s not just the guy sitting next to Mo’s problem, it’s mine too. I don’t want anyone, absolutely anyone to look at my son any differently than they look at me or you. I will simply not stand for anyone who will put my son down for being different and in case you are wondering what I will do faced with a scenario where such an occasion may arise, I have hidden fangs and claws that I will use to protect my precious offspring.

Then again, while I claim to celebrate Mo’s differences, I am also subconsciously and consciously trying to make him fit in with the ‘others’ or the stereotypical and therein lies the paradox and today’s incident, in the bus, made me reflect upon this conundrum. Is it because I myself am not comfortable with Mo being different or is it that I don’t want Mo to get hurt by others? I am going to go with the latter conclusion for truly it is Mo’s differences that make him the adorable bundle of love, simplicity, honesty and purity that he is. I am grateful for the joy as well as the challenges he has brought into my life and my family’s, for he has kept us grounded and thankful and honest. But Mo’s ego is fragile and he is vulnerable. He wants to be like his brothers and cousins and he does not want to be treated any differently. Yet he is different! So then, is there a solution to this paradox?
Indeed, there is and quite simply it is to embrace and accept differences so that they become the norm; so that parents such as myself feel safe in the knowledge that our special children will not be stared at, taken advantage of or thought of as any less than others.

It is Mo’s first day as a drive-thru cashier in McDonald’s tomorrow and I am nervous for him. He is so excited and stressed because working at McDee ’s, as he calls it, was Mo’s dream. Mo’s dream is about to come true but if he fumbles and falters will his dream turn into a nightmare? Will impatient customers be patient and respectful, and will his managers and colleagues treat him with understanding and kindness?


I am sending Mo off tomorrow with the counsel that mistakes are a precursor to learning, hence not to be afraid to make them. But my child is fragile and afraid as he is excited and hopeful. Thus, my counsel will be accompanied by constant prayers for this new stage in Mo’s life that could be a blueprint for his future.

For appointments with Huma for art therapy: go to www.colouredcanvas.net


Tuesday, May 15, 2018

The 'M' word nobody wants to talk about

I had the pleasure of meeting with an old colleague today, after many years. While we were catching up on times past, we happened to chance upon a topic about which we both share very similar views.  The question I am referring to is one that most people are either shy to discuss or wish did not exist. However, the fact is that the reality of the ‘M' word or dare I elaborate…the phenomenon of MASTURBATION within the context of children with different needs, cannot be ignored. The reason why I have capitalized the word is not to cause outrage or evoke disgust but to emphasize that it is an act that most males (at least) indulge in (please note that I said most not all) and that it is NORMAL to do so. I am not aiming for a religious or philosophical debate here, simply stating what is factual. Then why is it that when it comes to our children with differences, developmental or physical, we expect forced abstinence, denial and shame the subject? Why do we stigmatize a natural drive that is considered normal for neurotypicals but unacceptable for the neurodiverse?

I will not deny that when our children with different abilities are going through puberty, masturbation can pose many challenges. For obvious reasons, it is an act that calls for extreme privacy, and without question, no parent wants to witness their child engage in it or exhibit it. Unfortunately, with our special children a lot of times the discretion that we ideally desire, is not possible but that does not mean that the event cannot be handled sensibly. 

Instead of getting rid of the so-called problem (which it is not because it is normal) there are workable solutions to the issue. I found a solution that worked for my son, and I am confident that with the help of empathetic professionals and supportive parenting so can others who are facing the same dilemma.

In my case, I set specific boundaries around the act for my son who was allowed to indulge in it in a specified room beyond which there were consequences. With a few hiccups initially, he began to understand his limits, and we found a resolution to the problem.

Imagine the child whose sexual drive is suppressed continuously and finds no means of satisfaction? It is highly likely that the frustration will manifest in inappropriate sexual behaviours and/or acts of anger and aggression.

There may not be such a thing as a perfect solution, but there is always a way of handling what may seem like an insurmountable problem provided there is acceptance accompanied by perseverance and compassion.

Suggested reading: https://www.betterhealth.vic.gov.au/health/conditionsandtreatments/intellectual-disability-and-sexuality