It’s been a busy couple of days since Charlie starting having issues at his summer camp on Monday. That day culminated in him running away and hiding from staff at least 5 times and eventually locking himself in a supply closet.
Now, I am fortunate that this is a camp for typical children but they are very welcoming of special needs kids and that welcoming philosophy includes reacting to this development with an attitude of wanting to fix things, not get rid of Charlie. We are also lucky because a few of his elementary school team members have agreed to consult with the camp and even go and observe to help smooth things out.
While I am grateful for all this acceptance, it has been interesting the last few days to find my philosophies at odds with some really well meaning people.
I find others often offer solutions of how to convince him to behave rather solutions that allow him to behave.
The solutions that flow from these two ideas are often very different.
The solutions I hear most often are rewards based, sticker charts and things like that.
Now I have no issues with rewards systems, I use then quite a bit with both boys for completing chores or homework. I’ve even used them with myself.
But the underlying assumption is that the person has the ability to do the action in that moment, but need a little extra incentive to move forward.
This is almost never true for Charlie when he is having behavioral issues. When all is right with his world it is not his choice to test limits or break rules or disrupt things. Charlie is at camp because he wants to be there. We would never have signed him up without his buy in, nor continued to make him go if he was truly unhappy.
We need to start with that assumption. He wants to be there. He wants to participate fully. He wants to follow the rules.
So, when he doesn’t we need to start with why he can’t, not why he won’t.
When we accept that these incidents are nothing more than Charlie telling us in his own language of the moment that he can’t do what’s being asked of him, then we can find ways to support him in doing what he naturally wants to do anyway.
He does not need a reward to convince him to follow the rules, he needs someone to understand why he can’t.
In these instances, when we are bumping up against something he can’t do, a reward system ends up being nothing more than a visual of his failures.
This acceptance does not mean giving him the idea that running away is an acceptable thing to do. I have spent a lot of time talking with him about why that is a dangerous thing to do.
But, punishing him for it or even bribing him not to do it do not resolve the issues he really is having.
So, how did I ask that it be handled?
If he runs away and ignores requests to return than we ignore the behavior. Follow him and try to engage him in conversation on preferred topics, bugs, butterflies, dinosaurs. Do not talk about the behavior for now. Let him be comforted by ideas and conversation that make him feel safe.
When he is ready we talk to him, not about running away, but about what might be making him feel nervous. When I spoke with him we determined he was feeling afraid about a trip we were all taking to visit The Professor’s college friends this weekend, and that his camp was coming to an end soon which made him scared, and that a boy in his group is making fun of him and trying to exclude him socially. Some of these things I can do something about and make better for him and some we just have to talk about the feelings and validate whatever they are.
So we’ve learned that anxiety is, not surprisingly, at the root of the problem and lowering his ability to cope and now we have to set about preemptively lowering the anxiety. So several times a day now, even if he seems to be doing great, he goes for a walk through the woods one on one with a counselor to just talk about whatever he wants and then rejoins the group.
The staff were wonderfully responsive to these ideas. When they were implemented on Tuesday he had two incidents of running away. When he returned home we talked about it. We celebrated his success because two is three times less than five the day before. When he returned yesterday and today we celebrated because there were no incidents of running away.
He is being heard. He has the true supports that he needs to do what he wants to do, which is fully participate in the experience.
I can’t say it won’t happen again, we have some serious changes coming up over the next few months but I really believe the more he can trust that he will be listened to instead of punished the more willing he will be to ask for help when he needs it instead of feeling like he is on his own in survival mode.