“Learned Helplessness” – this phrase was bounced around in a meeting with the school recently. I keep going over and over it in my mind. When I first saw it on a paper, I recoiled. When it was being discussed I felt defensiveness and anger bubbling up inside me. I had to keep looking to my husband to see how he was reacting. As a school governor, he knows how to wade through the lingo. But this one was new to both of us, and it did not sit well.
There remains a prejudice – even in progressive places, even among the most supportive of people – against the idea of encouraging a person to acknowledge and seek support for tasks that others can manage. A look of horror shadows across someone’s face when we try to explain that FASD is a lifelong condition, that our son will always need scaffolding and support. The defensiveness I feel is that they are questioning me as a parent, thinking that I am ‘babying’ my growing teen, denying his independence, not preparing him for the hard, cruel world.
Oh, how wrong that is.
In seeking to help our son identify when he is overwhelmed, in giving our son the words to describe his need for people to break down their instructions, in providing our son technologies and strategies that allow him to remember and complete multi-step projects, in helping him understand those things that overwhelm him and in explaining why his brain finds certain things quite difficult, we are giving him the very tools he needs for his future independence.
Forcing him to write by hand something he can easily type is not overcoming learned helplessness. Giving him technology to unlock his thoughts is showing him how he can communicate all that is inside of him.
Giving him support to organise himself and what he needs to carry from lesson to lesson is not selling short his abilities, it is removing a needless stress – allowing him to focus on the other more important things rather than using all his mental energy for that purpose.
Helping him get dressed for school in the morning is not over-parenting him, it is creating an environment where he feels less anxiety allowing him to make the major transition of the day with as little stress as possible. (And no, don’t worry, I do not intend to be helping him to get dressed when he is 20.)
Yes, I do understand that water finds the path of least resistance and so do children. Sometimes. I do understand that making things too easy can become a self-fulfilling prophecy. No one is advocating under-estimating the considerable talents of my child, or any child.
In fact, I have sat in meeting room after meeting room in school after school and office after office doing exactly the opposite – showing teachers and professionals that they are the ones underestimating our incredible son’s abilities. Understanding how his brain works, suggesting the supports he needs to overcome the challenges he faces as a result of his brain wiring, this is not making excuses – this is providing insight and explanation for how to help him be all that he can be.
You may balk at the idea that a grown person will need to take motion breaks, to find some way to get deep proprioceptive impact regularly throughout the day to help himself stay self-regulated. You may think that ‘he has to get on in society,’ and that he has to ‘fit in’. That he needs to ‘learn’ to not need these sorts of breaks. But you would be wrong. There are ways as he grows older that he can meet this need without having to crawl into a ball pit. But if there is one available, and if he asks to go to it and is denied, then it is not me making him feel ‘less than’. Together we can find other ways for him to get this needed input as he grows. We have been teaching him since before he could talk to squeeze his fingers slowly, to squeeze my hand when we are in a crowd and I will squeeze it back (our secret signal, we squeeze out the syllables for ‘I love you’ in a way nobody notices). He will learn other ways as he grows older, but the answer is not for him to learn to just sit still. That will never be his answer. We have done star jumps in crowded hospital waiting rooms. Would you rather he sit there in distress until he can no longer handle the stress and have a meltdown? Who cares if this is not the ‘done’ thing. Maybe the world needs more ball pits and star jumps for us all.
This really isn’t about one school report. It’s not directed at any one individual. My strong negative reaction to seeing that phrase there in black and white is the result of a much, much wider frustration.
People out there need to understand that Foetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorders are lifelong. Practice and repetition helps. It is highly probable and desirable that with enough consistency some things that today need significant scaffolding might in a few years’ time be do-able by rote. That is the goal, the vision. Strategies we practice and discuss time and time again will become second nature. We have already seen this happen, seeds of strategies planted years ago are starting to bloom. Every lesson is being processed inside that amazing and complex brain of his – but we all of us need to measure ‘success’ in a different way, on a different time scale.
And – this is essential – we should not remove those supports once he is doing well. No, that is just cruel. That is setting him up for failure. The supports, when they work, need to be there on a daily basis, consistently. He’ll let us know when and if he can go to the next level.
Too often we get into a pattern of crisis, supports, end of crisis, removal of supports, crisis looms again. That cycle is because those around him – despite lots of training in other conditions – still fundamentally do not understand FASD. This happens also in homes and other settings. Things start to improve so we lighten up a bit and voila, things unravel again. The supports are not temporary. They are needed permanently.
You would not remove a hearing aid just because the person started to hear better.
In reading definitions of learned helplessness while still chewing (choking?) on the phrase last night, it occurred to me those who think this is happening are getting it backwards.
“Learned helplessness” occurs when a person figures that there is no point trying to avoid or change something negative because efforts to change it have failed in the past. The danger of our son learning helplessness comes when he asks for a sensory break and is denied. When he starts to believe there is no point in telling the adults around him he is struggling because they won’t change the environment. It comes when he gives up trying to find the words to explain why this project, that assignment, that topic or this particular journey is too difficult for him to wrap his head around in the way it is being presented, to hard to endure because of overwhelming sensory input.
People with FASD should not have to learn to ‘grin and bear it’. They should not have to spend all their emotional and cognitive energy trying to contain themselves, to perform one limited task. It should never be about writing one sentence when there are supports available to help them write in paragraphs. What’s the goal? We don’t want a child to use every ounce of their energy trying to remember their PE kit or trying to sit still for the next 30 minutes. We want them to contemplate the cosmos, to study the beauty, colour and rhythms in the world around them. We want them to open their thoughts to the magnificence of this mysterious planet, to learn about great lives and small wonders. We want to hear their voices, really, truly hear the songs their souls are singing. To do that, those of us supporting individuals with FASD need to think very carefully about what we are doing to unlock their potential and worry less about how to tame them to conform.
No, my child is not learning helplessness.
He is becoming empowered.
Just watch this space.