I wrote this initially as an email to a friend - a play-by-play of what was happening in the kitchen as my eldest daughter (our 2e child) was attempting to make herself a snack. This whole episode probably took 45 minutes. A task that typically takes less than a minute.
Right now, I’m at my desk looking into the kitchen and I’m working with Sophia through the steps of making Banana Pudding.
[Basically: mash a banana up with peanut butter.]
She is having a really hard time with it. She is already in nearly-freakout mode this morning (I think triggered by disappointment over what she got for breakfast, and possibly a drop in blood sugar before she got calories into her; she’s really sensitive like that), so her capacity for remembering directions and following them is very, very low. I’m seeing that deficit in Executive Function loud and clear. It’s appallingly bad, really. It goes like this:
Me: “What does banana pudding have in it? [She can at least figure that out]. Okay. Go get your ingredients.”
She gets the banana and looks blankly at it. “I don’t know what to dooooo!”
“Do you think you peel the banana, or do you remember eating the peel?”
She peels the banana. Then she’s lost again. I remind her to think of the ingredients. Her eyes light on the peanut butter, but she has no idea how to get the peanut butter to the banana. I ask a leading question about either using fingers or some kind of tool. She finds a spoon and manages to get some peanut butter on the banana before she loses herself again.
I ask her to remember what banana pudding looks like - is it a whole banana with peanut butter spread on it? Or does it look different? She remembers mashing, but she has no idea how to get the banana into a mashed state. I ask again about tools that might work - hands, spoon, fork, maybe?
She tries a wooden spoon and dissolves into frustrated tears. I tell her if she needs to take a break and get a snuggle, she’s welcome. She sits in my lap for about 10 minutes until she is stable again - the condemning voices of failure in her head have died down a bit.
I (casually - any hint of assertiveness on my part will create even more self-flagellation on hers) suggest my tool of choice - a fork - and she finds one in the drawer.
Her fine motor control really trips her up here, as does her lack of arm strength. These are things I know OT will help us with.
She can’t mash the banana. Her wrist is all crooked and she just bangs at it with the back of the fork. I get up now and demonstrate how to take little “bites” with the fork tines, and reposition her arm so the torque is better. She gets very frustrated with the amount of effort required to do this task.
I go sit down at my desk again and she takes another 5 minute break on my lap, weeping and feeling like a failure.
Finally, she finishes it. She tastes it and it doesn’t taste “normal.” I suggest more peanut butter. She adds more but gets it on her hands, and begins to freak out about the sensation of the peanut butter on her fingers. She’s frozen, freaking out, not able to problem-solve a simple hand washing.
I suggest she wash her hands. That calms her down, but the banana pudding still doesn’t taste “right.”
She’s done-for and I can tell.
I get up and put more PB on for her and stir it up a bit more. She feels much better about the banana pudding, but is worried that I might hate her now that I realize what a failure she is, not even being able to make banana pudding - something she KNOWS is a very simple task but simply cannot carry out from start to finish.
I tell her about how failure is how we learn and get better at things, and that I’m very proud of her for persevering. I know it was hard for her. Legitimately hard; she wasn’t making that up just to get attention (which is what I used to think, and used to get SO angry about it!).
I tell her that her brain gets all confused when she’s frustrated and upset, and it’s harder to remember all those banana pudding steps when she’s feeling that way.
Hearing those things helps her calm down, and she sits at the table to eat her banana pudding. Soon she is humming to herself and feeling back to normal.
In about five minutes, it’ll be another meltdown about another situation, and we’ll weather it much the same. Most days are comprised of these types of segments. It’s a rare day we don’t have any freak outs. Even when those days occur, I’m still on edge, waiting for it to happen, waiting to go into damage control mode and work us all through it. It makes for a very stressful daily life. However, now that I know how Sophia’s brain works, it is far less frustrating than it used to be. I handle her meltdowns far more graciously than I used to, when I was addressing it purely as a behavioral/disciplinary issue.
The banana pudding episode was one I purposefully went into, knowing it was going to create a meltdown. But it’s important to me that she work on learning these things - because once she has processed the steps into a different type of memory, she has no trouble doing a task; she’s not incapable of retaining information globally, just locally in her Working Memory, and really only then when it is being taxed by stress and anxiety - which occurs in novel situations and anything that smacks of “learning.”
If she doesn’t realize that she is assimilating new information, the panic mode doesn’t get triggered and I see a completely different person. Like one day, in the car. She and Alana started doing mental math games with each other (Alana has learned 1+1=2, 2+2=4, and 3+3=6, and loves to remind us of it). I led them into counting by twos this way, and chanted the “2, 4, 6, 8, who do we appreciate? SOPHIA!” Which she had never heard before and made her blush with pleasure. She repeated it a couple times (once for appreciating Mommy, once for Alana), then she was silent for a moment.
Then she said, “Oh! Listen to this: 1, 3, 5, 7, 9. It’s the same thing - you just skip the number in between.”
I was mightily impressed by her deduction. I explained how that was also counting by twos, and those were the odd numbers she was counting. She asked, “Can we count by threes?” I demonstrated and she copied me. Then we did 4s and 5s also.
Then she lost interest and I wisely (from experience) didn’t push it. If I push her to do more than she’s ready for in academic learning, the subsequent meltdown shuts her brain off and we lose ground. It’ll take weeks, maybe months, for her to be willing to do that kind of counting again if I push it into “learning” territory.
This makes me glad to be homeschooling.She has so much generalized anxiety about leaving home and family that it would put her in a tailspin; it’s doubtful she would be able to assimilate anything in school. The psychologist agrees that a classroom is not the place for Sophia right now. We have big social, emotional, and even physical areas in which we need to bolster her up before we can even get to an academic focus (rather than academic sneakery, which of course happens all the time around here!).
Sometimes (on hard days), I lament our lot - raising an exceptional child is no easy task; adding a new baby to the mix has stretched us to the max. But then I think, “I’m so very, very glad that she wasn’t given to someone else.” It has been such a hard journey, and there is loads more work to do ahead, but she has us. We are her allies in this. Thinking of her in another family, with parents who weren’t so committed to her success; who might beat or medicate her into a false submission that completely oppressed her amazingness - that makes me weep, softens my heart, and strengthens my resolve to be the best mama this child could ever be given.
So, there you have it. If anything about this story sounds familiar to you, I urge you to get your child tested. And honestly, I wish psychological and behavioral testing was the norm for all children. It is immensely helpful to have a window into your kid’s brain!