When James was a toddler, he would have meltdowns all day long. He did not speak, he did not hand lead, he did not point his finger, in fact he had little to no gestures at all. Can you imagine the frustration of this for him? He would want something and not understand why I didn’t just “know” (Theory of Mind again) what he wanted or needed. He couldn’t communicate his most basic of wants. In the last twelve months he’s been able to talk to me more about his behaviour when he was younger and so much has fallen into place for me as a result. Much of it has left me feeling very guilty for not understanding him.
One behaviour he routinely did from a very young age, was to lie on the floor of the grocery store. He would put his face on the floor and look under the shelves from left to right. He didn’t mind if people walked around him or over him, or even past his line of vision. If you tried to move him however he would become extremely distressed and on more than one occasion, it would result in me having to abandon my trolley and head home.
A few months back we were at the grocery store together, just the two of us, and we saw another little boy who was doing this exact same thing. I said to James:-
Me: Darling, do you remember when you were a little boy that you used to often do that exact same thing that little boy is doing?
James: Yes Mum, I do.
Me: Why did you used to like doing that? Can you remember?
James: It was about the shoes of course.
Me: What do you mean it was about the shoes?
James: Do you know Mum that men have very boring shoes but girls have very interesting shoes?
Me: Well – yes! That’s true! Girls do have interesting shoes. Were you looking at people’s shoes then?
James: I was looking at the shoes and putting them into baskets.
Me: Baskets? Baskets in your mind do you mean?
Mum: So why did you like to do that love?
James: I just like having one thing to think about sometimes. It makes me feel more calm.
Mum: So did it make you feel calm to sort the shoes into baskets in your mind?
Mum: So what did you think when Mum tried to pick you up off the floor and put you into the trolley?
James: It made me sad. I just wanted to look at the shoes.
Mum: Well I’m really very sorry about that darling because I had no idea that’s what you were doing and that it was so important to you.
James: That’s OK, Mum. You can’t read my mind Mum … can you?
Mum: I wish I could James but no … I can’t read your mind.
Can you see why I felt so guilty after this conversation? When a child becomes so anxious and their sensory system becomes so overloaded, it makes sense that they would then choose to hyperfocus on something else (like the shoes) to try and regulate themselves – to try and block everything else out. And when someone then tries to prevent you from doing this calming behaviour would it not be frustrating, upsetting and confusing?
All behaviour has a purpose, a reason. As parents, educators, friends and family we need to look beyond the presenting behaviour and try to ascertain what the real problem or concern is. It may take time and it may require trying hard to step into the child’s shoes and view the world from their perspective. The presenting problem is rarely if ever the actual problem. We need to try to view the world from their perspective with open eyes, open ears, and an open heart.