Thursday, May 12, 2016

More powerful than the bully!

Tia is 13 and Leo is 8 years old. Both have Aspergers, both come together once a week for art therapy. Their relationship had come a long way in that they are able to work together on the same piece of paper in their own distinctive styles cooperating with each other which was not the case when they first began. Now at times they even complete each others work, crossing boundaries that were  at first rigid and guarded, commenting and sharing stories.

Slowly the dynamics of this little art therapy group has managed to open up the fiercely protected emotional world of Tia and Leo whose artwork is now beginning to shift from the factual 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 this particular session, both Tia and Leo were given a directive to draw each other. The idea was to encourage thinking/focusing on the other, beyond the self, and to gain insight into how Leo and Tia perceive each other. After they completed their artwork, both were asked to talk about their images aided by prompts from the therapist. For instance, Tia was asked about Leo's expression and why she had drawn him next to a female figure in the picture. Whereas Teo who had represented a complete story around Tia's life was encouraged to talk about it. Eventually, the conversation led to individual likes and dislikes to which Tia said that the one thing she hated was being bullied in school. Encouraged to elaborate, she shared that she was pushed around by boys in her class and called 'lazy'. Spurred on by Tia's sharing, Leo, who is usually very defensive and emotionally reserved, declared that he too disliked being bullied in school and went on to give examples. At that moment the significance of the mutual revelation was very palpable in the room. One wonders what kind of impact a close bonding moment such as this could have on two children who struggle with friendships and relationships in general? The knowledge that one is not alone in ones suffering, in itself is a liberating experience.

Tia and Leo's artwork

The above disclosure from both children led to a golden opportunity to empower Tia and Leo against the bullies at school. Sometimes circumstances/reality will not change, but what can change is our perception of it; how we internalise it and assimilate it in our memories. Hence, Tia and Leo were asked to draw the bullies, give them a tangible form, something that could be an external representation of their dislike or fear. They both obliged, and once they had drawn their images, they were asked to contain the forms of the bullies within boundaries. The idea was to literally and symbolically imprison the bullies and take away their power. Both children ended up drawing substantial walls around their bullies, pointing out to each other where the walls needed reinforcement. The session ended, hopefully with Tia and Leo stronger in their friendship and more potent in their minds.

Tia and Leo will probably continue to face challenges from society as they grow, as does their exposure to the world. They need to be empowered mentally to deal with these challenges.  Art therapy is an effective modality that can help to give concrete shape to abstract concepts that may not be accessible through language. Also, it provides a safe environment for children and adults to process difficult emotions and events that need an outlet.

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