My 4-year old client threw himself on the floor and cried when sharp adult scissors were taken away from him, but wailed, "I'm happy, I'm happy..."
A 5-year old girl grabbed something from me and then immediately socked me in the nose when she saw my sad facial expression.
Another young boy, startled when his little sister cried, insisted to me, "Abby's happy. She's not sad! She's happy!"
Susan recently proposed a topic that has been on my professional radar a great deal lately. That is, why is it that some children want everyone to be happy at all times, and how can we help them process and accept negative emotions better?
I think there are probably quite a few opinions out there explaining why this is. Last week I had the great fortune of having meetings with two colleagues - first I met with Liesl Wenzke Hartmann, SLP of Communication Therapy in San Francisco, and then with Emily Rubin, SLP, one of the creators of the SCERTS Model, a comprehensive educational program for children with autistic spectrum disorders. I wanted to hear what each of them thinks this is all about, and their answers made good sense so I will try to summarize our conversations for you.
One of the core deficits in autism is difficulty in predicting social behavior in others. To borrow a statement straight out of a SCERTS workshop hand-out, "Individuals with ASD have neurological differences that impact their ability to predict the intentions of others, comprehend social cues and share their intentions with others."
A developmentally young child with ASD who has difficulty predicting the intentions of others will have a very hard time knowing what is going to happen to him next, even when his communication partners think that they are making it very clear (e.g., putting on jackets and shoes, getting the car keys, saying, "Let's go to Target!"). The child is then picked up "out of the blue" from an enjoyable activity at home by his loving parents and taken outside where he is strapped into his car seat or stroller and perhaps brought to a noisy store or play group. This can be confusing and dysregulating, which in turn has the potential to make a "simple outing" a great challenge to parents again and again. Tension builds in the family's day-to-day life as everything starts to feel like a battle.
In addition, the child may see absolutely no logic behind someone else's emotional reaction. His sister, from his perspective, quite often begins to tantrum out of nowhere, which is very startling and - again - dysregulating. If a child does not see it coming, because he has trouble reading social cues, he has no opportunity to initiate soothing strategies such as moving closer to Mom, covering his ears, or leaving the room to find his sippy cup before the tantrum escalates. The world becomes an unpredictable, often frightening, and stressful place.
No matter what the particular situations are, this child is developing what the SCERTS collaborators call negative emotional memory around a great many things; things as simple as Mom getting her keys or his sister starting to cry. He has not yet had enough opportunities to: a) predict the occurrence of something challenging, b) use coping strategies for self-regulation, or c) learn over time that he can make his way through these difficult feelings without becoming dysregulated. Therefore, he experiences negative emotions but doesn't really connect meaning to them, becoming dysregulated immediately when he feels them. And, when he has enough language to do so, may try to deny them out of fear.
Put another way, in the words of the SCERTS folks, "When a child is not able to predict the actions of others and has limited history of positive emotional experiences in social interactions, social experiences become threatening, anxiety provoking, and worthy of avoidance."
Let's face it. As a society, we are very uncomfortable with negative emotions. Adults so often say to a child, "Come on now, don't cry about that!" or "There's no reason to be so mad," or "That's a silly thing to be sad about!" We tend to try to safeguard young people from those challenging emotions, especially our children with special needs, figuring they've got enough to deal with already. But the hard truth is that we must all learn to predict, cope with, and succeed in moving through negative emotions in order to feel comfortable with them and continue on our way up the developmental ladder.
[Part Two will address how to help guide children through this process.]