Saturday, March 12, 2011

The Boy in the Balloon

I wrote this a year or two ago but edited it recently. Since I am not writing much of anything worthwhile right now, I figured I would post this. I originally wrote it for a "journal" for my Humanistic/Existential Psych class. It's kinda weird. I think my teacher thought I was weird. I think his comment was "This is interesting...."

Whatever. I'm used to people not "getting" me at this point anyway! (BTW, if you haven't read "The Man Who Was Put in a Cage," I recommend it. I recommend any Rollo May, actually. But I'm weird, so I guess I would!)

I just finished reading “Psychology and the Human Dilemma,” and was inspired by the chapter, “The Man Who Was Put in a Cage.” How neat to try and convey the same stories through a parable, fable, myth, or semi-fictionalized story! I was inspired to try and write a parable or story, and this is the result.

I love working with children with autism, and I’m discovering that I also enjoy working with their families. I want to find some way of conveying to parents what I see in their children, and help them to strengthen the bond of their relationships based on the strengths they see and love in their child. It breaks my heart how many mothers I talk to who cannot name one thing their child does well, or one strength their child possesses. So many parents talk about their children being “taken” from them by autism, and I watch them fight so hard to “reclaim” the child they imagined they had that they never see their child in front of them. Yet, it is also apparent that they love their child in a way they can’t describe and have a bond and a relationship indescribable to the world outside. I can teach children appropriate social skills, how to engage in the world more appropriately, and try to pull them out of their “autism balloons,” and this is important simply because they need to live in that world. I think it is equally important, however, to show their parents it is okay, and perhaps even necessary, to rise to the child’s plane and meet them there. If we can’t meet them halfway, why would they be willing to meet us?

The Boy in the Balloon

Once upon a time, a child was born. The mother held the boy in her arms, amazed at his soft skin, his beautiful face, his round arms, his tiny toes. She watched him watch his world and she found him perfect. She protected him with her heart and soul, and there was no doubt in the child’s being that he was loved. She and her husband made plans for the child going to school, playing Little League, and becoming a doctor or a lawyer or an architect. They were certain he would be successful. They looked at their son and were amazed they were able to create something so perfect and beautiful together. Together, they named the child Brandon.

When the boy turned two, the mother noticed that he was quiet and preferred to play by himself. He played with one toy, alone, for hours. “It is because he is figuring out how it works!” said the husband, and they believed the son was a genius. The boy began to line up his toys on the carpet, making line after line after perfectly straight line, and they called him a hard-worker and a perfectionist.

He preferred to do things on his own, rarely seeking out his parents comfort or attention. He never brought them things he found on the ground or pointed to things he saw. “He’s independent,” said his mother, and she and her husband smiled at their independent child.
The child fell and bumped his head and his knees and he never cried. “He’s strong like his dad,” said his father, puffing his chest in pride.

Then, when he was three, the boy went to daycare and the teacher said “he is walking on his toes, and rocking back and forth,” and she was concerned. “He’s not like other children,” she said, “there is something wrong with your son.” Then his mother noticed that his words were further and further apart. He spent his time alone, spinning puzzle pieces, or finding pieces of string on the carpet and dangling them before his eyes, fascinated. He stared for hours at the ceiling fan, giggling, and examining it from all angles. The mother expressed the concern to her husband, and he told her to shut off the ceiling fan and vacuum the carpet to get rid of the strings. So she turned off the ceiling fan, and the boy screamed and hit his mother and kicked his father. She turned on the vacuum and the boy cried, covering his ears and running into the walls.

The father pulled out a toy with lights and sounds and took the boy to his bedroom. He sat on the floor with the boy and pressed the buttons, making the toy beep and whirr and light up blue and red and green. The boy sobbed and threw the toy and hit his head on the floor. The mother came in to soothe her son, but when she touched him, he shrieked and ran to lie under the cushions of the couch and the mother cried.

After she cried, she pulled out a book on children and parenting and she read it, cover to cover, only to find that her child was no longer the perfect child described. She found another book, and her child was not in that book either. She looked at her husband and knew his dream of Little League was disintegrating before their eyes and she was sad. The mother was confused as to what could have happened to her son, but she loved him all the same and used words like “unique” to describe him to herself and others. “He just needs time,” the mother thought. “Boys develop slower than girls. Even Einstein was slow to learn. He is smart and creative and independent. It will all settle down with time.”

Every morning, the mother woke early and went into her son’s room where he was sleeping. In these moments, she could see him as he was and could marvel at his perfection. One morning, she quietly entered the room and found her son enveloped in a big transparent balloon. The mother was confused as to why her son was in a balloon, but she loved her son and was not about to believe he was anything but perfect. She tied a string around her son’s balloon and she took him everywhere she went, but as she walked, she found other mothers with their sons in strollers looking at her strangely and she wished her son would sit in a stroller as well. She noticed people staring and knew how strange it looked, but felt that others must just not see the brilliance of her son. As time wore on, however, she became tired of the looks and the stares and the comments about her son’s behavior and his balloon. So she went to her husband and said, “I think there is something wrong with our son,” and this time, he agreed.

The mother took him to the pediatrician and told him the story: “This is my son and he is brilliant, but he is in a balloon and I can’t find him in the books anymore. He is independent and hard-working and full of energy and emotion and life. He gets angry because we don’t understand him, and he’s frustrated that he’s in a balloon. I need you to rescue my son.”

The pediatrician looked, and he felt and he poked and prodded, and tried to pop the balloon, but it wouldn’t pop. “This might be a problem, tell me about his history,” he said. The mother told him everything she knew about how he loved to play by himself for hours, learning to take his toys apart and put them back together. She told him about how he had such a long attention span he would sit and look at picture books by himself at school. She told him about how he lined up his toys in perfectly straight lines, and how her husband thought he might grow up to be an architect. She told him of the morning she found her son in the balloon, but how she loved him all the same. The pediatrician said: “your son is reclusive and has limited social interaction skills. He has obsessive and compulsive behaviors, appears ritualistic, and he is stuck in a balloon. This might be a problem. Give him this pill and see if it will make the balloon pop.”

So the mother gave him the pill and the boy became tired and lethargic, and his joy in bouncing around in his balloon was gone. The mother knew this was wrong, so she threw the pills away and called the pediatrician who said, “This is a problem. Call this specialist and she will help you get him out of the balloon.”

So the mother called and was put on a waiting list for weeks. When the appointment time came, she went to the specialist who said, “He is in a balloon, and this is a problem. Tell me about his history.”

the mother told her about his bizarre behaviors. “He lines things up and looks at toys like a crazy child,” she said, never remembering that he had once been hardworking and brilliant. “He never comes to me and is reclusive; he doesn’t seem to care if I am around,” she told the specialist, forgetting that her son had once been independent and creative.
“I see” said the doctor. And she felt and poked and prodded, and tried to pop the balloon, but it wouldn’t pop. “This is a problem,” she said again, and she named the balloon Autism.

The mother heard the name of the balloon and she cried as she told her husband the name of their son. She turned again to books to try to find her son, and she found him in the books about other children named Autism. Soon, she was lost in a world of Early Intervention, Individualized Education Plans, and Applied Behavior Analysis. She talked to the doctors, and they said, “he is still in a balloon, and this is a problem." She talked to other parents and she took everything artificial and all wheat and dairy out of his diet. When the boy was four years old, the doctors said, “He will never come out of the balloon. You must learn to just accept that your son is in a balloon named Autism.” At this, the mother knew that they thought her son was lost.

But the mother loved her son, and she was sad, and tired, and angry, so she took her son to a psychologist. On her first visit, she said, “I am the mother of this balloon named Autism.”

The psychologist looked at the mother and smiled. Then she looked at the balloon and said, “Hi there, Brandon.” The mother was startled, and realized she had not heard a professional speak her son’s true name.

The mother asked the psychologist, “Can you bring him out of the balloon? He is ritualistic and impulsive and hyperactive and has stereotypic behaviors.”

The psychologist shook her head and said, “I can help you to meet him on the boundary of the balloon. I can take you to the balloon so you can understand, I can help you to love the balloon, and I can help you let the balloon disappear sometimes from your sight.”

The mother did not know what to say, so she said, “I am angry.”

“Yes,” said the psychologist. “Your son was lost and then renamed, and your dreams were left for dead. You have had to create a new life. Of course you are angry.”

The mother said, “I am sad.”

“Yes,” said the psychologist. “You feel your son was stolen from you. You have been told to just accept your new son, when no one ever checked to see if Brandon was still here. Of course you are sad.”

The mother said, “I am tired.”

“Yes,” said the psychologist. “You have been fighting to find your son, and you are realizing now he has been before you all along. Of course you are tired.”

The mother said, “I want to be hopeful.”

The psychologist smiled. “Then I will teach you to enter the balloon,” she said.
Together they sat, and the psychologist spoke of Brandon, and the mother felt a warmth flow through her. As she connected to her son, the mother was amazed at how she had known her son all along. The psychologist slipped in and out of Brandon’s balloon, and showed his mother it was possible. The mother was skeptical, so she asked the psychologist, “But why does he scream?”

The psychologist took her inside Brandon’s balloon. Inside the balloon, the mother saw that the world was cloudy and the sounds were loud and muffled, and it was sticky and hot. She saw the toy with lights and sounds, and when it flashed red and blue and green, she could feel the colors racing through her body, and the whirrs and beeps made the world look like an overexposed picture and made her ear drums reverberate. She felt as though the world was spinning by so quickly she couldn’t keep up, and everything was off balance and heavy. The mother felt tired and sticky and overwhelmed, and could not find the words to say it, so she screamed.

So she asked the psychologist, “why does he stare at ceiling fans and walk on his toes?”
The psychologist took her inside Brandon’s balloon and as the mother stared with him at the ceiling fan, the world became clear. As she focused on the fan going round and round, the rest of her world reached a calm center, and everything else faded away into a blissful quiet. The mother was so relieved at the calmness, she began laughing, and lifted onto her toes at the lightness of her body.

As time went on, Brandon’s balloon got smaller and smaller until his mother could barely see it at all and she was amazed by son’s brilliance and his love and deep way of being. Brandon was still impulsive and hyperactive and ritualistic and had stereotypic behaviors, and the mother still felt sad and angry and tired, but she also saw her son and was amazed that she and her husband could have created something so perfect and beautiful. One day, she asked the psychologist, “how did you know Brandon was there? How did you know how to find him in his balloon?"

“I didn’t,” said the psychologist. “I simply showed the part of him that was reaching for you, to the part of you that was reaching for him, and I created the space for you to meet.”

The mother looked at Brandon and smiled. Then together, they floated out of the office.

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