By Liz O’ Keefe
Some of the paths that we travel on this autism journey, indeed, many of them, can be tough. It is the little positive steps along the way that keep us going through the more difficult times. One of the paths we are walking at the moment with Melon is that of emotion recognition, It’s an area where Melon has always had struggles, but has recently made some significant progress. She has begun to recognise and comment on our emotions – “Daddy is sad” “Peppa pig is very happy” – and has even begun to give voice to her own internal emotional states – “I’m sad, I’m crying” or “I’m shy”. For me, it’s not just the fact that she is saying it that excites me, it’s the fact that in doing so she shows her awareness of the value of communicating her own emotions, and the value in acknowledging the emotions of others. It’s a huge conceptual leap.
Another behaviour that speaks volumes about the emotional understanding inherent in it is the following: a few times, when she has been upset, Melon has grabbed my face and tried to physically mould my features into a “sad” expression, so that they mirror her own expression. All of a sudden it has become important to her that my facial expression reflects the emotions that she is feeling. She seems to want me to empathise. One of my favourite small steps along the long path to emotional understanding came a couple of weeks ago…
It was the start of spring, and the reason I knew that spring had started was because my Barometer of a daughter detected it. I found her sitting on the back step one Saturday afternoon, staring up at the sky, with excitement burning in her eyes and a new level of animation to her face. So I donned my boots, and made my way tentatively onto the lawn (I say lawn, at this point in the year it’s more like a mud-flat with a few valiant blades of grass poking through it). Then Melon got her boots on too, and off she went. We heralded the start of spring with two classic suburban rituals. Firstly, the un-covering of the trampoline; secondly, the furious ringing of the wind-chime by Melon. She then spent about an hour, on and off, bouncing on the trampoline. Smiling, laughing, whooping, face radiating pure joy. Hubs watched her through the back door, I flitted between garden and kitchen doing various jobs.
But something was different. Melon kept checking to see if we were looking at her. Not asking us to look, just pausing every now and then glance our way and check that we were still watching her. When she’d reassured herself that we were, she resumed her bouncing, facing us, looking at our faces and beaming. This was completely new behaviour. Melon has never checked for our responses before, never wanted to perform, never seemed to value our approval, applause or interest, she has only ever been motivated by her own agenda. But not today. She wanted us to watch her, and so we did, and the more we applauded and showed our enjoyment, the more Melon showed her enjoyment. We took pleasure in each other’s pleasure.
It was the first day of spring, and, literally and figuratively, Melon had sprung. Days like this, instances like these, small steps along the long path to understanding emotions, they all give me so much hope for what lies ahead, for the level of understanding that Melon will be able to achieve about those around her, and about herself.
*Liz O’ Keefe is an Autism Mom from the UK. Her beautiful daughter Melon was diagnosed as autistic October 2013, and she has been reading, writing and reflecting on autism and her family’s experiences on her blog, Cat on a Trampoline, and FACEBOOK page since then. Through hard times and good, she believes that there is a lot to celebrate about autism, she believes in positive.