In my profession, I interact with families and students sometimes on an hourly basis. Many of my memories in connecting with families is just listening. To perspectives. To their learning about their child. To their frustrations. Their joys. Parents truly understand their children like no one else ever will. Parents are the advocates. And, I believe, we have a lot to learn from the experiences of parents who live day-to-day with children who are on the spectrum.
One such parent, I’ll name him Scott, shared with me his understanding of his son’s brain. He told me that his son’s bucket was different than his own bucket. Scott explained that his son woke up each day with a 1/2 full bucket – and that Scott woke-up with an empty bucket. Scott and his son could have similar experiences in the same hour or day, but those experiences can fill a bucket different than the other. And if your bucket is already 1/2 full, then it is easy for it to overflow. …
… Well, his thinking makes perfect sense now that I struggle to understand my own son’s brain and thinking.
So, imagine a bucket. Any kind will do (mine is actually a 5-gallon orange bucket like those at the hardware stores). My bucket is usually empty when I wake up in the morning. My previous night’s sleep, my ability to use coping strategies, my workouts, my morning coffee all bring me balance to my day. Thus, my bucket, can usually be emptied by dawn of a new day.
The goal of the bucket is not to overfill it – otherwise you’ll loose the contents. Sometimes, my bucket runneth over when I’ve had one of those days: stuck in traffic, late for a meeting, a long-lasting tantrum from one of my children, a miscommunication with a loved one. When my stress or anxiety builds then so do the contents of my bucket. However, I’m very good at making time to workout, read a book, or take some double-deep breaths. This lessens the contents in my bucket; thus, I don’t overflow.
But, my son, and many persons who are on the spectrum wake-up each day with a 1/2 filled bucket. Persons on the spectrum live in a world that demands them to comply to a certain set of societal rules. While I don’t like this, it is truly how our world works. It is expected that we will not scream at the top of lungs or throw ourselves on the floor. It is expected that we listen and we say please and thank you. It is expected that we look others in the eye. And if we don’t, then there will be stares or comments made. There will be lectures or gossip.
These expectations are tough for persons on the spectrum. My perception is that meeting these societal expectations makes the bucket difficult to empty.
Thus, if a something doesn’t smell right in the kitchen – or mercy – the lights are too bright upon just waking, then my son’s bucket fills rather quickly. Things that normally don’t bother me, will add contents to my son’s bucket. So throughout the day, small noises, smells, feelings, and misinterpretations fill my son’s bucket. And when it gets full – or overflows – a meltdown occurs. The tantrum. The crying. The hiding under the table.
So, what happens when a bucket overflows? Well, first, I try to help my son with relaxation techniques such as breathing and yoga poses. I am constantly putting fidgets into his hands and reminding him to breath when he looses “that” one LEGO piece. But, when it does fill-up and then overflows, I let it happen. I allow him to feel sad or angry or scared or frustrated. I let him go through the emotion and then I help him to identify the emotion. I say something like, “you are feeling mad right now.” Usually, my son will agree with me, saying, “yes, I am mad, mad, mad at that LEGO piece right now.” I remind him that it is okay to be mad at the LEGO piece, but it is not okay to be destructive to your surroundings or to say hurtful things to others. I remind him that he can be as mad as he wants with a pillow in his room. He can be as mad as he wants with a colored marker and sheet of paper. He is allowed to have this emotion – because he is human.
And then, when the tantrum or the crying subsides, we talk about what happened. I usually ask him the following questions:
- What happened?
- How did it make you feel?
- What was your role in what happened?
- What can you do differently next time something like this happens?
And then we let it go. We move on. We giggle and take time to tell a joke. We take some deep breaths, lessening the contents of his bucket.
So, my learning thus far, is that we all have buckets in life. Some of our buckets, namely adults with lots of practice, can keep them rather empty. And others have buckets that are full or almost full by mid-day. And these buckets are important factors when working with young persons who are on the spectrum. Those tantrums and screams and yells may just be a bucket overflowing. Let it happen. Remind the child that you love them. Remind the child that it is okay to have an emotion. Reflect.
And then, move on.