Yesterday, a moment stood out when a little boy, Nathan, ran to my big therapy room mirror several times to touch his face and watch his own facial expressions. At one point he went to his mother, who was sitting at the top of a short flight of steps. She asked for a kiss and he kissed and hugged her but from those steps he could clearly see himself reflected in the mirror and he watched himself hug his mother with grave interest. At another point in the therapy session I had a Smart Board going and Nathan went in front of the board and saw his shadow, black against this white board because a Smart Board is like a movie screen, an illuminated picture that comes from a projector. Nathan found his shadow upsetting and became agitated when he saw it was like a reflection but there were no details; only his shape in black shadow moving as he moved. I got him away from the Smart Board before he got too upset but he was near tears.
I got thinking about a saying I heard once You can never see your own face. It was said metaphorically, with the point being that we not only can't physically look about our own face and must rely on a reflective surface to see ourselves but more importantly, we can't know our own selves but rely on the reactions and feedback that we get from others to know ourselves. Nathan is discovering his own face in the mirror at three years of age and he is not keen on seeing himself as a black shadow. He is also discovering himself as a person who kisses another person (his mom) by both experiencing this loving moment with his mother and by watching himself experiencing this moment. Nathan captured my attention because he was so seriously studying himself and trying to use the mirror to know himself better.
I have been spending many evenings and weekends with a friend who is living now in a Hospice Home. If I am not writing so much here on Autism Games, this is the reason. She is a few years younger than I am and therefore I feel she is facing the end of her life much too soon. As our children grew up together, my friend, Jane and I spent many hours together and got to know each other as mothers. We talked about our own lives as wives, as daughters, as educators; and we discussed our spiritual beliefs, our pets, our other friends and we talked a lot about cooking. But, the hours that I have spent sitting in Jane's room at the Solvay Hospice Home have deepened my understanding of Jane in a whole new way. Perhaps more to the point, Jane is also learning about herself in a way she could not have before. Friends are flying across the country to visit Jane. Locally, friends come every day and chat for as long as they can spend and as long as Jane's strength will allow. Everyone who loves her is making darn sure she knows this. Each person visiting is telling Jane what part she played in their own life and the cumulative picture of Jane that Jane is being shown is impressive and a bit overwhelming to her at times, I think--in a good way.
A child with autism has a great deal of difficulty knowing him or herself. Problems with sensory processing may even make it hard for a child to understand that the physical reflection in a mirror actually is a reflection and so a child like Nathan discovers this much later than other children would. The sense of self that develops as a child engages in social interaction is even more problematic for children. A child may have less total social opportunities, less ability to interpret social feedback, and less ability to reflect on the information received. It is not just a lack of information, however, it is also the case that children with autism may receive much more negative feedback than is healthy. They may live in a world of No! Don't! Stop that! Make a better choice! Do something different! I told you....!
So, why was this moment with Nathan important to me? Partly because I feel I need to keep providing feedback to the children that I see that allows each one to learn more about him or herself. There are so many ways that we can explicitly communicate important information--which we know is necessary at a time like the end of a person's life, but we all need to realize is important at the beginning of a child's life as well. E.g. I think you are musical because you sing so much! or Nathan loves mommy. We need to beware of intentional and unintentional negative feedback that we may be giving. Even therapy, which is meant to be a positive experience, often has a subtext that can communicate to a child that he or she is not good enough. We judge so many things that a child does in therapy and simply being judged can give a child a sense of being inadequate. Watching Nathan, I vowed (again) that I would find a way to reflect a positive image back to every child that I see in the same way that everyone seems bent on reflecting back the best of Jane to Jane.