A neurologist once told me that my daughter could learn appropriate social behaviors only she would learn them in the same way that other people acquire math skills. A logical and learned system of facts based on the keenness of observation. It was an interesting approach to be sure, but we set about to make this our reality. Indeed, deciphering the code of human behavior had become a dominant topic in our family life once we had adjusted to other words like “Autism” and “Aspergers” and thus rarely a day went by where one of us was not verbally voicing our observations. It’s our own rote learning, a repetition of human idiosyncrasies that has become, when we’re at our best, easily discernible and predictable. Sometimes it’s even like a game, as we seek to boast the speed of our skills. As I clamp my mouth shut in an effort to control my baser impulses after a grueling day of mothering, I may hear from the other room, “I predict that Mom will spend the afternoon in her room. She looks like she’s holding something in. And it’s not good.”
Suffice to say that over the years I’ve been forced to do a lot of work on myself! I opted to wade in to this world of emotional reporting and that has meant being just as much of a guinea pig as anyone else whom crosses our path. “You look mad. Why are you mad?” Does anyone ever feel like answering that question when they’re in the throes of emotional torment? And yet, our system, which quickly moved beyond the running list of metaphors taped to the refrigerator, meant that I had to engage just as much as my daughter did. I was not exempt. I was a human being have human emotions, was I not?
What has fascinated me in retrospect, as my daughter is about to turn 18 years old now, is how much our familial position on learning about human behaviors has changed my own perceptions. I’ve been forced to be a keen observer too, as one can not seek to explain what they can not themselves see. I’ve found myself moving through each day examining expression and body language moment to moment. We find ourselves patiently sitting through conversations where people weave in and out of thought whilst they set up their stories. On the other side of the fence, the observer side, I’ve found the machination fascinating. Indeed, I’ve also found myself, on more than one occasion, impatiently blurting out the final destination of the conversation—just as my daughter would have done prior to being shown how to wait patiently. We used to give her a bracelet of beads that she could play with and count while she waited for people to get to the point that she herself had found within moments. We also started to see manipulations in conversation, how stories were set up to affect outcome. A beginning, middle and end. And remarkably, you start to be resolutely unaffected by the intended destination if it doesn’t sit well with you—before the talker even gets there themselves.
I’ve also caught myself becoming very blunt. There have been occasions when I have suddenly realized that outside of my immediate family, an accurate observation is probably not going to be appreciated! I have become a little desensitized. Have I met my daughter in the middle? Have we compromised somehow? Do we now speak our own social language or have we settled in to a place of authenticity? It is a delicate balance.
Many years ago we started working on a hierarchy of emotions and corresponding behaviors. It was simple enough. “I’m feeling mad because I’ve had a difficult day and that’s why I yelled at you, “ I might reveal. “Interesting how I did not cause your bad day yet you’re yelling at me,” my recipient of negative emotions might recounter. Interesting, yes. And, why is that?
We came up with a simple table to show the direction that emotion could travel in if not caught and thought about. Our idea was that it is totally OK to feel the way you feel, you just need to understand why you are feeling that way and act in a sociably and personally acceptable manner. Today the buzzword for that is mindfulness. We called it “Mind Your Emotions”, a tribute to “Mind Your Manners”-- something that any parent of a spectrum child knows you hear all to often.
It goes without saying that, at the time of this writing, the emotional climate of an entire nation has become an interesting source of conversation. We are not unaffected, and we have pulled out our old emotional map to not only check ourselves, but also to try and decipher what is happening on such a massive, global scale.
It is a very one-dimensional observational device and we’ve since found several similar models out in the world, but this is ours. I have only changed some of the words from kid-speak into adult-speak. For example, on our original child geared model “Apathy” read as “I don’t care”. “Shame” read as “I’m not good enough” and so on. We had also included the corresponding behaviors on our old model. For example, “I feel mad” led to “I hit my brother”. You can probably extrapolate your own manifestations.
I included the following version of our scale with my latest workshops and now share it here.