Filling Your Child’s Bucket

Filling Your Child's Bucket

This post was originally published on Parenting ADHD & Autism on May 23rd, 2016. 

The Conversation

PARENT: “My child is awful by the time he gets home! He plays video games and refuses to do anything else, screams at me, or abuses his sister until she cries.”

TEACHER: “He is an absolute angel at school! He does his work and is very well-behaved. I have no idea why he is like that at home.”

The Thoughts Behind the Conversation

PARENT: “What am I doing wrong?” OR “What are you doing to my child?” OR “My child must hate me.”

TEACHER: “If you would just do at home what I am doing at school, everything would be fine.” OR “I have no idea what this parent is talking about. Is this made up?”

The most important thoughts, though, are the child’s thoughts.

CHILD (at school): “I am going to do my best to be a good kid today so the teacher and the other kids will like me.”

CHILD (at home, after school): “That was so hard! I can’t do it any more — I need a break!”

When your child is the one who won’t stop playing video games, or who screams at his sister, or treats you like a punching bag, it can be hard to remember that he may just have nothing left.

It takes a lot of work to hold it together in an environment that is not suited to your needs.

  • Sitting still when you want (need!) to move is work.
  • Listening to a teacher when you have trouble understanding what she is saying is work.
  • Understanding what the other kids expect you to do when you have trouble reading the unspoken social cues is work.
  • Writing when you don’t have the fine motor skills to make it look nice is work.

If you find it easy to sit still, and you are great at understanding what others are communicating (both the spoken and unspoken messages), and you love any task that allows you to show off your amazing ability to draw or write, doing these things is not work.

Your resources are like water in a bucket. If you wake up refreshed, eat a good breakfast, and are in a good mood, you start the day with a full bucket. You can do anything! Everything you do that is hard for you drains some of the water from your bucket. Sitting still — if you are a kid who needs to move — drains some water from the bucket. Listening to the teacher and trying to understand what she wants you to do, when you have trouble understanding her, also drains water from your bucket. Figuring out why the other kids are reacting the way they are, when you can’t read their body language, drains more of your resources. And if you struggle with fine motor skills, writing and drawing don’t restore your reserves; those activities are draining.

Filling Your Child's Bucket

If you are doing things that drain your bucket, you need to replenish the supply.

  • If you need to move, recess and exercise can fill your bucket.
  • If you love to read, quiet time with a book can fill your bucket.
  • If you enjoy video games, playing can refill your bucket.
  • If you like being alone and quiet, you may need to retreat to a safe place to calm your jangled nerves and refill your bucket.

What drains one child’s bucket may replenish the reserves of another. Carefully observe your child to see what she does for fun. Then make sure to build time in her schedule for her to do the things that will refill her bucket.

And if your kid’s bucket is drained? Don’t expect him to do things that are hard for him. That might mean canceling plans to hang out with a friend, or not going to a soccer game. Or, it might mean that homework isn’t going to get done tonight.

And that’s okay.

It’s more important that your child view himself as competent and able to navigate his challenges. It’s the job of the adults to make sure he has the resources to do that.

(photo source)


Frames of Reference in Autism

Recently I’ve been listening to Invisibilia, a podcast “about about the unseen forces that control human behavior – our ideas, beliefs, assumptions, and thoughts.” This week’s episode is on Frames of Reference. The first segment is about Kim, a doctor with Asperger’s Syndrome (or “high-functioning” autism). Kim participated in a study designed to determine whether stimulating specific regions of her brain with strong magnetic impulses (transcranial magnetic stimulation or TMS) would change her ability to understand some of the subtleties of language – sarcasm and emotional content, in particular.

TMS did change her abilities, but only for an hour or so. And in that hour, Kim was given a window into an entire world that she had known nothing about prior to participating in the study. In one part of the story, Kim described an experiment in which she watched a video clip before they administered the TMS, and again after the TMS. She describes the video from her perspective each time – first as a person with autism hearing the words and being confused, and then immediately after the TMS when she could understand that the intention of the speaker directly contradicted her words. “And now I saw it: the body expression, the facial expression, and the tone of voice in that interaction. [I] completely missed the meaning of the whole interaction until after the TMS. And then I saw the whole thing clearly.”

I think that this may be the first time I have truly (TRULY) understood how difficult it is for people with autism to understand the social-emotional world. And how utterly effortless it is for others.


René Magritte – The Human Condition – 1933

At the end of the segment, the hosts (Alix Spiegel and Hanna Rosin) discuss whether they would want to get the treatment if they had Asperger’s. Hanna answers, “If it were me, I think I would make the same choice Kim made. But if it was someone I loved, a child of mine, my first instinct would be to protect them from it… Because another thing we value is self-acceptance. You don’t want someone spending their whole life grasping for an ideal version of themselves, and not the person who they are.” Alix then says, “I think that for Kim, seeing this other world, getting this other frame of reference… gave her self-awareness, and the grace of self-awareness. She was suddenly able to see clearly what she was, and what she wasn’t.”

I was listening to this episode with my oldest son, who shares Kim’s diagnosis. After the segment finished, I paused the podcast and asked him what he thought. He answered that he didn’t think he would want to get the treatment. I asked him why not. He said that he was okay with the way he processes the social world.

I then asked him about the video clips and what he would have heard. He said that while he would have noticed the nuances of the interaction (the body language, the facial expressions, the tone), he would have focused on her words and been confused.

But then he said two things that I found incredibly interesting. The first was about how he thought understanding people was like programming computers. He said that Kim’s experience of the video conversation was like when he wrote a program and thought it would work perfectly, and then when he tried to compile the code or run the program, it worked differently than he’d thought it would. This led him to look at the code carefully, and try again. And, inevitably, it would fail again, but in a different way. So he would try another fix, and another, and another, until he was able to get it right. He does the same thing when talking to others. Communication by successive approximation!

The second was about a book he read, Moral Politics – How Liberals and Conservatives Think, by George Lakoff. The most important lesson my son took from that book was that you can understand people if you can understand their frame of reference. When he first read the book, his frame of reference was that of a liberal. When viewing our political system through that framework, he was unable to understand why conservatives felt as they did about certain issues. After reading Lakoff’s book, he understood that conservatives have a different frame of reference, and it is not a bad frame, just a different frame. Prior to reading Moral Politics, he had no idea that he was biased in his perceptions. That’s true of everyone, he said. We all have our own unique frame of reference, shaped by our highly individual neurology and our experiences. As he spoke, I began to more clearly appreciate the fact that none of us can ever truly understand each other, just as we cannot truly understand ourselves.

We can just make successive approximations until we understand each other well enough.