Our thoughtful attention energizes kids with special needs.
Posted Mar 12, 2019
“Kids will invest more when they feel they’re being invested in. I understood that there was power in showing children my regard.”
Michelle Obama says this in her recent autobiography, Becoming (Crown, 2018). Reading her inspiring words evoked a memory of an interaction I had years ago with Spencer, then a 10-year old with sensory processing disorder (SPD) and several other issues including learning disabilities.
Spencer worked hard to get through the school day. His teacher could not, or would not, understand his out-of-sync behavior. She insisted, “He is so smart—he should know how to sit still, listen, and get his work done.” She regarded Spencer as an unmotivated student and clumsy attention-getter—rather than a child who could shine if she would take the time to observe how his brain and body worked.
Spencer’s mother, Nika, asked me to write a storybook that would explain SPD in simple terms for children as well as for adults, such as his teacher, who could use a short course on the subject. To answer this need, I wrote The Goodenoughs Get in Sync, in which each Goodenough family member has a different type of SPD. They experience a rough morning, help one another use their “sensory tools,” and get in sync by evening.
When the book was published, I invited Nika and Spencer over to give them copies. Gingerbread cookies and lemonade, two foods that Nika said her picky eater especially liked, were on the table.
Spencer sidled into the house. He did not look at me. He inched into the living room, reached for a gingerbread man, and slumped into a corner of the couch, watching warily as I sat down at the far end.
Nika and I chatted for a few minutes, and then I turned to regard Spencer, curled over his cookie. His body language was saying, “Noli me tangere. Don’t touch me. Don’t even look at me. Don’t reproach me for slumping and being grumpy and not looking you in the eye. Just don’t regard me at all.”
His behavior was OK with me; I got it. Kids with special needs are often ill-at-ease in social situations. Because of certain observable issues—e.g., clumsy motor coordination, mumbled words, and limited eye contact—they may come across as dullards. Meanwhile, their finely-tuned feelings and deep interests go unobserved. Rebuffed by adults and other kids, these children find social contact to be just too daunting, and so they withdraw. So would we all.
But each of us needs what the humanist psychologist Carl Rogers terms “unconditional positive regard.” While everyone yearns to connect and be known, people like Spencer struggle to make those connections, especially with strangers.
I hoped to connect by showing my interest. I took a cookie, and we nibbled side-by-side for a moment. Then I asked, “Spencer, what do you like to think about?”
Mid-nibble, Spencer froze. Slowly, he lowered his cookie, raised his eyes and studied me. I must have passed the OK-vs.-Not-OK test, because he nodded and answered, “Batteries.”
“Because they can run the world efficiently and help save the environment.”
A few more questions from me, and he was off and running. As if some magic hand had zipped up his spine, his posture changed, and he sat tall. Eyes aglow, he talked, smiled and gestured for 10 sparkling minutes about battery energy. He described how, in his plan, big batteries would not only empower cars, home appliances, cities, and space travel, but also clean up the planet. He explained how these big batteries would be replenished by gigantic batteries.
I asked, “How will the gigantic batteries get their energy?”
“Solar power, I think.” He sipped his lemonade. “I’m working on it.” Then: “I wish you were my teacher.” We smiled at each other, while Nika wiped away a tear.
After more conversation, it was time for my guests to leave. Unprompted, Spencer gave me a bear hug and said, “Thank you. This was nice.”
Spencer has grown up. With his parents and a few teachers advocating for him, he has excelled at school. Always curious about how things work, he has become an electronics expert—building drones, leading a 4H Inventors’ Group, and competing in national robotics competitions. At college, he majors in electrical engineering and anticipates helping the world to become more energy efficient. He is one of my heroes.
In our interaction 14 years ago, I was able to get in sync with Spencer because I had found that connecting with children with special needs takes extra thought, time, and tact. Kids like Spencer are just like all children, only more so: they need to feel certain that they are safe, and heard, and known. They will let us in on their amazing thoughts and ardent feelings when our quiet, patient, special regard invests them with power.
Friedman, M., PhD (Feb. 1, 2017). Jonathan Friesen: The Power of Unconditional Positive Regard. https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/brick-brick/201702/jonathan-friesen-the-power-unconditional-positive-regard