It’s been awhile since I’ve written anything. Sometimes real life gets in the way of my blogging. I guess I could probably make the time to come on each day and write some meaningless garble, but I’ve tried my hardest to keep away from turning this into a blog about what I’ve worn each day or what my dog ate for lunch. It would be easy enough to do – I wore sweat pants and Henry ate a diaper. Yes, a diaper. I could elaborate but believe me you aren’t interested in either.
So, I guess it was a combination of the two, lack of time and lack of a good narrative that kept me away from my blog for a full week. I am finally back though, and with a short story. A short story about Mia and her newest drawing, which just happened to be a little orange man drawn in a birthday card. Let’s call this short story “A Happy Soccer Player”.Mia loves art – coloring, drawing, cutting, pasting, and painting. Creating anything really. If properly allowed she flourishes with these tools in hand. I’ve always seen art as the ultimate form of expression so I decided a long time ago not to coax anything out of Mia with pen and paper (besides her name, of course). I believe it is important that Mia is able to express, freely, on her own, with her art, whatever it is that she wishes. So, whatever it is that she makes, she alone makes. I try my hardest not to sway her art in any direction. I want it to be void of my influence. I want it to be her. A complete expression of her. Mia’s thoughts on paper (or whichever medium she so chooses).
Mia has dabbled in the arts since a young age and has been drawing people for quite a bit of time now. Mainly stick figures with large circle heads and oval bodies. She likes using straight or squiggly lines that jet out in all directions to make the arms, legs, feet, hands, fingers and toes. She draws curly, straight, short and long hair. She uses multiple colors. She puts them in a multitude of settings. She makes friends for her figures, plants, houses and animals. But she never makes any defining emotional features on their faces. No smiles. No frowns. No tears. No widely opened laughing mouths. Just a thin line. Just slightly curved, pursed lips.
Those are Mia’s people; with blank staring faces. Faces void of any real emotion. This is the normal person Mia draws. I realized awhile ago that this is because emotions tend to be an area of struggle for Mia. It tends to be an area of struggle for a good deal of Autistics (or so I have been told.) In Mia’s case particularly, she knows that people have a wide range of feelings and she knows that different environment and stimuli may make a person feel a particular way. She understands emotions but not necessarily the facial expressions that go along with each emotion. For example, although she understands what being annoyed feels like and although she knows it isn’t pleasant, she has trouble reading the social cues others give off (like facial expressions) that would clue her into another’s feelings. She has trouble matching the correct emotional response, in others, to any given incentive.
For those of you who may have the preconceived notion that autistics don’t feel, or understand, or even care, about another’s emotions let me clarify this for you. That is just not the case. When it comes to emotions all Mia has trouble with is putting the correct facial expression with their adjoining emotion. She understands other’s feelings; she just has a hard time processing those feelings based on facial expressions alone. Mia feels deeply. Mia cares deeply. And because of her social ineptness she also has a hard time properly expressing in our neurologically typical language, both verbally and nonverbally, her concern for others. Sometimes her reaction to others emotions doesn’t seem, to us, to be appropriate given the circumstances. When in fact, she understands completely and her response is just different than ours may be.
Up until the other day the only emotion that I was absolutely positive Mia could connect to a facial expression, one hundred percent of the time, was sadness. Mia understands that a sad person cries. And her response to another’s tears is the always the same; getting close to their face and whispering “Boo hoo hoo. She was so sad.” (This is one example of her response to emotion not fitting in with our idea of what a suitable behavior should be, like say, hugging someone. And, trust me, it isn’t always interpreted by the recipient as a kind gesture.) But it is because of this response that I knew Mia understood other people’s sadness. It was because of this common response that I realized she had some grasp of uncovering other’s emotions by reading social cues (i.e. crying). I just wasn’t sure how much of a connection she had made with other emotions and their corresponding facial expressions.
Well that is, until Roger’s birthday on Thursday when she decided to let me in on a little secret. And, per usual, she did it nonchalantly. She allowed me in by drawing a little orange person – a picture she titled “A Happy Soccer Player.” And as she drew him I was shocked, mainly because I knew it was wholly her doing. I was shocked to watch her make a person full of emotion. Animated. Happy. Imaginative. Orange.
It happened something like this…
I’ve learned that positioning myself in Mia’s field of vision is a great way to better elicit a response. So, crouching down to her eye level, with six brightly colored markers in my hand, I ask her to choose a color and sign her name on her father’s birthday card. Noticing the markers, she looks me in the eyes quickly. (It’s easy to get her attention when art supplies are involved.) “Picture.. Orange picture.” Was her ready response. Grabbing the marker from my hand she gets down to the business of assessing her work area. Ready to draw, she looks up at me with her big brown eyes and begins to narrate what it is she will be doing; rattling off the name of each body part as she draws it. Her hand is moving furiously across the paper and her tongue is pressed hard upon the upper left corner of her mouth (her trademark move). First the head. Next the eyes. Then the nose. Diligently working she draws these areas and then she suddenly stops, thinking for a moment. What comes next? I wait as patiently as I can without interrupting her thought process by blurting out the answer – “the mouth.” My silence pays off when she moves her gaze from the picture to my eyes and says “A happy soccer player… smile.” Placing the orange marker in the center of the face she draws a great big grin and repeats herself. “A happy soccer player… smile.” Then casually finishes up her picture, but not before remembering to add all of the many soccer essentials, “a soccer ball, soccer shoes, and a soccer shirt.”
Like most children Mia enjoys praise, so when she is done drawing she looks up at me approvingly. I nod and she smiles and says, once again, “A happy soccer player… smile.” But this time, after hearing her words and focusing on the soccer player, with his huge smile, I realize what I have just witnessed. Mia, for the first time, articulated her understanding that the emotion happiness is best expressed with a smile. This she told me both verbally and physically – by speaking and drawing. After seeing the finished product I am sure that my daughter has once again shown me that she has a hold on concepts I was told not to expect her to understand. After hearing her words and seeing the picture the only thing I am unsure of is whose smile was biggest; Mia’s proud smile for having drawn such an amazing picture, my amazed smile for being privileged enough to find the meaning in such a small occurrence, or the happy soccer player’s smile for having just kicked a winning goal.