“Mummy, at the disco it was so loud that it made my heart beat really fast and it felt like it was dancing.”
First things first, I can’t believe those words came from a five year old. I know for certain I wouldn’t have been so attuned with my bodily sensations at the same age.
Secondly, within that sentence is an ability to teach emotional intelligence. This is something that has been discussed as virtually impossible in the past due to the inability to get through the ‘red mist’. However, I have always ascertained that at home she displays such understanding, unfortunately at school her anxiety was always on the brim so they rarely saw it. However, we have had some flickers of hope from two important breakthroughs, so here goes.
My daughter is finally back in full time education with the support of a 1:1 TA (note for Mummy … AND BREATHE!). This person has a willingness to be flexible and creative as well as an interest to learn more about PDA. This has resulted in a far less anxious child at school and at times less explosive at home. Even though on many occasions she rejects the help by informing the headteacher “Can you just tell her to stop following me?!” she quickly glances around to check the TA is still there. Her usual tactics of avoidance would usually stop a professional from engaging any further, but what she is learning is that this person is STILL here. This gives her a vote of confidence, the teacher must actually like her. This reassurance is starting to finally allow us to unpick some of the unwanted response systems she has built up. The ‘teacher that follows me’ is someone certain in a very uncertain world.
The second change was learning she has Autism. She has asked me questions for so long that I was unsure what to say. At aged 4 she talked about having monsters in her head.
However, with a diagnosis I was able to follow my instincts and I found my right moment to tell her ‘you have autism’. This is quite a lengthy subject, so I shall blog about it at another time. The key part is that she is gaining some self-awareness. She is beginning to learn that she is not ‘naughty’ but that she struggles to control her response system. She has shared the information with some key people at school and has even asked her TA to tell the children about her having Autism. Acceptance is key and the ability to find her own identity is something I believe will endeavour to prepare her through life.
Teaching her about why she has a fight or flight response system, we have revisited the book The Panicosaurus by K.I. Al-Ghani.
The book teaches us about why we get anxiety and where it comes from using the perspective of a child:
“Deep inside everyone’s brain is a place called the amygdala. A little dinosaur called the Panicosaurus lives in the amygdala.”
It talks about the Panicosuarus being needed in the cave man days, always on alert to fight away a sabre tooth tiger or to defend the cave from a hairy mammoth, but in present day it often lays dormant and plays tricks on our brains.
“Panicosaurus would help the caveman by getting his brain to tell his body to breathe faster, so that his heart would beat more quickly and pump extra oxygen to the muscles in his legs and arms. This meant the caveman would be ready to run like the wind or fight for his life.”
This is the sensation my daughter was describing at the disco when her heart beat so fast it felt like it was dancing. Unfortunately, for many children on the spectrum, there is a correlation between having a dysfunctional amygdala, so in this case our Panicosaurus sends the child into overdrive unnessarily.
As the book teaches, this is where we need our superhero the Smartosaurus to step in. The Smartosaurus is hidden in the part of the brain called the neocortex and tells us that the Panicosaurus is being mischievous. There are techniques the child can use to help the Smartosaurus beat the Panicosaurus and are illustrated throughout the book. My daughter uses it when she gets a bad thought in her brain (she is unable to articulate what the thought is), so she breathes out slowly mouthing the word “Pan-ic-o-saur-us!” It seems to help regulate her breathing and the moment often passes.
A suggestion was given to me about giving my daughter a notebook where she could either write or draw her bad thoughts down. So one day she picked it up to use it, and this is what she put:
‘My dolly Panicosaurus, you are ugly!’ By insulting it and calling it a doll made her laugh uncontrollably.
We hadn’t mentioned this book for quite some time, but somehow she had remembered and used it at the right time. We are only at the beginning of exploring this strategy, but I am hoping she may be able to reflect and put it to good use. She has named it her Panicosaurus book as this makes more sense for her.
Her memory of the disco was from last year, to suddenly blurt out that sentence must show the ideas are seeping in. She is open to learning emotional intelligence, we just need to be creative to do it.