The first time I really became aware that I was not in control of how other people saw the world was over 25 years ago when my mother was diagnosed with Early Onset Alzheimer’s at the age of 60. Before she got sick, like most families we would work together as a unit, going through our days with similar expectations of daily routines. When her decline became more rapid and evident, simple activities like stacking the dishwasher or opening windows on warm days caused conflict and stress. As she lost her ability to speak, the challenges were enormous for all of us – What did she want? What is she trying to say? Why is she doing that? Her behaviour was a puzzle for us. It was not until we began to try to see the world through her eyes that we were able to more often avoid stressors. We needed to stop thinking about our reality – opening windows on warm days was rational to us – and start to see how open windows were a cause of anxiety for her. No use in trying to figure out why she became agoraphobic or hope for an improvement in her condition, it was enough to see that her world was turned upside-down and that we needed to realize this in order to be able to communicate with her on her new terms.
I was reminded of the importance of understanding that all behaviour is a form of communication when I attended an engaging workshop this week entitled, “Exploring Autism – The Elementary Years.” In one of the activities we participated in, the presenter encouraged us to consider the complexity, or puzzle as it was presented, of autism. The puzzle of autism refers not only to the fact that we have much to learn about causes and supports, but also to the fact that the disorder encompasses a variety of aspects from sensory processing and anxiety, to the developmental level of the child and their independence. After exploring the spider web of symptoms and strategies to help support children with autism, we were left with the central notion that it is a social-communication disorder; these children are definitely communicating to us, but the moments of intense frustration result from the lack of mutual communication due to the fact that we are not using the same language. A goal, therefore, is to try to see the world through their eyes so that we can better understand the stressors and be supportive when behaviours erupt.
In a classroom, we are constantly seeking perspective, not only for students with clinical diagnoses, but also for every behaviour that requires support and redirection. In one of my kinder classes, there is a child who experiences intense bouts of anxiety and fear of abandonment. She will often cry when we go on walks outdoors if she feels she is too far behind me or my ECE partner. We have learned that there is the possibility that she and her siblings are sometimes left alone in the apartment when their parent doesn’t come home at night. Knowledge of this possibility helps us to understand that what this child is feeling when she cries is not simply to attract attention, but is a symptom of a significant fear. In this case, we know the “why?” of her behaviour and this helps us find and implement supports at school. Taking her hand and walking with her is enough to allay anxiety at the moment and to build her confidence that we won’t abandon her.
Some behaviours, however, are harder codes to decipher and we are currently trying to gain perspective as a team into the possible reasons why one of our students is having serious toileting issues when this was previously not a problem. The fact that this child, who has behaviour issues as well, has been soiling himself almost every day for the past month when there are no evident symptoms of a digestive disorder, is the puzzle we are currently trying to solve. What are the reasons for his behaviour? What is he communicating to everyone? Despite our efforts to give him support and encouragement for positive interactions with his peers, why have none of the behaviours changed? We are sleuthing to be able to gain perspective into this child’s world so that we can give him the support he needs as soon as possible, and we are expanding our kindergarten team to include the administration and Learning Support Team so that we can gather some insight that might help us help him. At the moment, we have very little to go on, and we realize that our team of ECEs and teachers can see the result but not the cause of his behaviour. Doesn’t mean we are giving up, only that we have some work to do.