In my previous two posts, I talked about how my meditation practice has helped me cope with the struggles of parenting a disabled child. Sometimes, however, the opposite happens and Sarah becomes my teacher.
Ask any parent of a special needs child what factors generate the most stress and frustration in their day-to-day lives and many will tell you that behavior issues top the list.
A typical 11 year old understands that they have to turn off the TV and get dressed to go to soccer practice. Children with intellectual disability don’t understand why they have to stop an activity they are enjoying and transition to another. Children with autism often don’t respond to their environment the way neurotypical kids do. External stimuli such as noise, activity, and changes in lighting are perceived differently and may result in over-stimulation and behavioral outbursts. A quick trip to the grocery store for milk can turn into an all out screaming rampage that leaves everyone in tears.
Sarah lines up her cars to feed them dinner.
Sarah has intellectual disability and, what I call, “intermittent autism”. I know that that is not a real diagnosis, but it describes her pretty well. Some days, Sarah is engaged with the world, makes eye contact, can carry on a conversation, and enjoys participating in her daily routine. Other days are a different story. She refuses to speak or make eye contact. She may get stuck in a loop, repeating the same activity or saying the same phrase over and over. She once spent an entire afternoon playing with bubbles and repeating the phrase “Juice makes bubbles!” non-stop. She has about 100 Matchbox cars that she likes to line up. We then have to go through a ritualized series of phrases and responses that must be said in the correct order before the first car can drive off and park and the entire process starts over with the next car in line.
For years, our biggest challenge has been the morning routine of getting ready for school. She fights taking off her pajamas and will immediately pull off any article of clothing we manage to wrestle her into. She screams, kicks, spits out medicine, and throws things. We have tried time out, loss of privileges, begging, bribery, and, though I’m embarrassed to admit it, even the occasional spanking, all to no avail. Mornings are so hard that her Individual Education Plan includes a late start time for the school day because there is simply no way we can get her there by 8:30. Once, when upset over something at school, she tried to take off all her clothes in the cafeteria as a form of protest.
Last summer, with the start of a new school year fast approaching, we decided to try Applied Behavioral Analysis (ABA). In a nutshell, ABA is a behavior modification program administered by a trained behavior analyst who investigates the target behavior, examining its triggers and consequences, and comes up with a plan to promote a desired behavior or skill.
Prior to starting ABA, Sarah had a checklist for her morning tasks – eat breakfast, take medicine, get dressed, brush teeth, etc. She loves to go bowling and we used that as a reward. If she completed her checklist all 5 days of the week she could go bowling on Friday. Unfortunately, even with the promise of her favorite activity, it was not uncommon for her to arrive at school still in her PJ’s with her breakfast and clothing in her backpack. Sarah’s behavior analyst pointed out that, although most kids her age could work for an entire week to earn a reward on the weekend, for Sarah, this was too far in the future to be meaningful. Instead, the analyst recommended that we break Sarah’s morning routine down into tiny steps and start by rewarding her for even the smallest bit of cooperation. At first, her check list included turn on bedroom light, pull back blankets, sit up and get out of bed. Upon completion of these tasks, Sarah earned a dollar. It was astonishing how well this worked. She was so happy to have earned her reward, that she would then happily cooperate with the rest of the morning ritual and make it to school dressed and ready to learn. After a couple of weeks, the checklist changed to getting dressed – take off PJ’s, put on undies, pants, shirt, socks, shoes. She puts her dollars in her purse and then gets to go shopping and pick out something to buy with her hard-earned money. She still has occasional bad days, but mornings are much less stressful than they were prior to ABA.
Most of the time, the lessons I learn from my Vipassana teachers are put into practice during my time off the meditation cushion. But sometimes, it’s my life experiences that inform my meditation practice.
I try to meditate for 30 minutes every morning, go to my local Vipassana Sangha meeting once a week and keep up with reading the chapters in the book we are studying. I also occasionally follow a couple of podcasts (The Secular Buddhist and Buddhist Geeks). Last year, after planning and saving for 2 years, I went on my first weeklong meditation retreat. I try to avoid comparing my practice to that of others, but sometimes I think that if only I could meditate more or read more books on Buddhist psychology, or go to more retreats, I could really develop that elusive sense of equanimity that so many Buddhist teachers claim is within my reach.
When I meditate regularly, I do see a change in how I respond to the daily challenges life throws my way. I am more apt to calmly remind my teen to do the dishes rather than react with anger when she procrastinates. However, all too often, I find myself reacting in the same old way when things don’t go my way. I miss that split-second opportunity to just pause and be mindful of the situation. Rather than respond to Sarah’s behavior with patience and compassion, I blow my top and start yelling. Then comes the regret. If I were a good Buddhist, I wouldn’t get so angry.
Let’s face it. I’m not going to become enlightened (whatever that means) any time soon. If Sarah had a bad night and I only managed 2 hours of sleep, I’m not going to get up 30 minutes early to meditate. There’s no chance I’ll be able to get away for another lengthy meditation retreat anytime soon and I only have so much time each day to read. Rather than working toward the far off day when I’ve reached some magical state of inner peace and harmony, I should apply our behavior analyst’s guidance to my own daily struggles. I will endeavor to set small goals and reward myself for even small accomplishments. I will forgive myself when I act unskillfully and still go bowling on Friday.
Hey, I managed to sit for 15 minutes this morning and was mindful of the aroma and flavor of that first blessed sip of coffee. Yay me! Where’s my dollar?