As fall comes to an end I’m sitting on the farm surrounded by freshly fallen snow. It’s as though the universe is painting a visual for this season of life. These past few months have been extremely difficult for me. In the middle of a growing pandemic and the pressing matter of racial inequality, I know I’m not alone. Collectively as a nation and world, we’ve had to adapt overnight to changes in our culture, find ways to address what seems like trauma after trauma, and somehow keep putting one foot in front of the other. Yet life is still around us, no matter the valley we’re in.
As a business owner of a company that makes my heart swell with pride, there are so many things I want to tell you. I want to tell you about the years before Instructional ABA Consultants was born–what it was like to hold the hands of mothers whose children were being institutionalized. I want to tell you how Applied Behavior Analysis changed everything for each and every client I worked with. Of my deep love of a man named David, my favorite client of all times.
I want to explain how through tears, sweat, heartache, brilliance, vulnerability, and grit my company was shaped; this came from me and the employees who built it. I want to create resource after resource for children with autism, families of these young children, and each person in the world who feels like their voice doesn’t matter. All of these things burn inside my heart.
Yet today, my win was that I got up without crying. Was this anyone else’s win?
Taking Time After Trauma
In the middle of trauma or in coming out of trauma it’s easy to expect ourselves to quickly go “back to normal.” I remember this vividly when I was awakening from postpartum depression after Henry was born. I was so joyful to feel like myself again. I wanted to pack my days with everything “Jessie” I could think of. Doing this, while very tempting, would have flattened me. In coming out of a depression I had to honor what my body and mind had been through. To choose wisely what I would add to each day.
So what is normal and how do we choose what to add? Today we’re all so indicated by social media and marketing telling us what our lives should look like. On top of that, we’re socially conditioned to be a certain way or want certain things based on our gender, race, sex, and age. There are so many opinions swirling around us on who we should be and how we should behave. Trauma, like the COVID-19 pandemic, threatens this unnatural order.
Many of us were on autopilot prior to COVID-19. Then we were forced to stop. I believe this is true with any trauma or major life event. It could be a cancer diagnosis, the loss of a loved one, an injustice toward a loved one, a divorce, your own mental health taking an unexpected turn, financial upset–the list goes on and on. Trauma is part of our lives and it’s the part of our lives we don’t talk about enough.
The scariest part? If a person does speak up about their own personal traumas, the systems supporting us or the people around us often bring shame. Shame to keep us small and silent. If you feel pain, scared, or threatened don’t ever let anyone tell you to stay quiet. Speak up every single time regardless of what others say around you.
What We Can Do to Recover
So what can we do? What can I do as 2020 comes to a close and the pandemic we thought would be over by June continues? Wasn’t it just yesterday I was laughing about toilet paper and schools closing over margaritas with friends? We honor the season then get the hell out when it’s time to get out. That’s what we do.
Winter comes every year and our busy-ness becomes harder to keep. COVID took much of that busy-ness already. Personally, I hope it never comes back. This season of stillness is a natural order of things. We as humans are not meant to be on high speed every second of every day. We are also not built to impress and conform. We’re built to breathe freely, live freely, and love fully.
To do this we must honor where we are in life and love ourselves just as much when we’re crying on the bathroom floor as we do when we’ve achieved a goal. Grief comes for all of us. When we can offer ourselves compassion and grace the season is honored. On the other side of winter is spring where the flowers grow. Yet if we spend our lives wishing for beautiful flowers we’ll miss the cold beauty of a bare tree.
A new season is coming. Sit here darling ones. Hold your heart if you’re crying and take a moment to breathe the sweet winter air.
If you’re a mom of young children like me I’m sure you’ve had the thought of going to the zoo once or twice. It goes something like this:
The local zoo announces a baby. Let’s say an elephant is born so of course, you go rushing! You get to the zoo (pre-COVID, maybe) and see the beautiful baby elephant, just days old, walking behind their mama. In a short moment, you think back to your child’s infanthood and think, “baby boy(or girl) you had fewer skills than an elephant.” Infant humans, while incredibly squishy, cute, and forever smelling of Dreft and lavender, come into the world with no survival skills.
There are thousands of articles on the importance of early intervention. I spent my bachelor’s degree diving into many of them, followed by stocking my brain with new findings for the past decade. This is in part because I am a researcher by trade. The other part is because I am a nerd for human development. It fills my bucket. In my blog today I’m going to try and give you a snapshot of why development from infancy through kindergarten is so vital. I’m also going to talk about why it’s important for children with autism and our amazing clinics at Instructional ABA Consultants.
Focusing on Child Development Early
OK, let’s get started by going deep. Human infants are born without any skills because their brains need more time to develop than all other mammals. If babies grew into functional toddlers in the womb they could not come out of the birth canal. Women’s bodies are incredible but they aren’t magic; there is a limit to the size of what we can birth (yes, I’m grimacing as I’m writing this because medication-free birth with a newborn is magical, but birthing a toddler? Um…).
So we get these tiny humans, who are desperately in need of being cared for–it’s almost like they are in the womb for an extra three months after delivery. Then they begin to wake up. I remember when both Henry & Declan found their toes and fingers in amazement around three months old.
During this first year of life, thousands upon thousands of neuroconnections are made. Babies are quickly developing their brainpower, motor skills, and language through these high-speed connections. To do this babies need a few simple things. Infants need to be nurtured, to know that when they have a need their parent responds. This creates a secure connection and lets baby know the world is safe. Babies need food and lots of sleep. Once these basics are covered we move into the two most important things; environment and socialization.
Early Socializing & Environments
I like to think of babies, toddlers, and children as little scientists learning through cause and effect. The environment is a huge blank canvas for our children to discover how their world works. Socialization is the tool children need to survive in our culture.
In their early childhood years, these two pieces are so incredibly important because of the rate children can learn. From infancy to year five, children will learn more than any other time in their lives. “What about college,” you say? Nope. These foundational years are the years where connections are made in the brain that last a lifetime.
As a professional, I love looking at how all this heavy lifting helps to shape the outcome of children’s lives. As a mama, I drove myself crazy after Declan was born and I realized I was basically running a school in my home for Henry. This wouldn’t be possible with two kids under two.
This was insanity in hindsight. This was also when I was personally able to take a deep breath and remember what I knew. The two most important things are environment and socialization. It’s not about how “cute” my day is with my boys. It’s about how often they are able to explore and engage. These days you won’t really find me teaching at a table much. Instead, you’ll see a “yes” environment set up (more on this later but basically a safe space to learn), technology out of reach (no TV/no Tablets on the regular as these devices delay both language development & socialization), and lots of talking.
Henry and Declan get to flex their learning muscles through exploration and language. I get to flex my relaxation muscle by not trying to do it all. I’m lucky in that way because my children do not need intervention. If they did I would not be able to sit back because these experiences would need to be contrived. That’s why ABA is so helpful for young children with autism. Here’s why.
The Importance of ABA Therapy for Autism
When a child has autism the neural pathways or roads in the brain that tell that child how to communicate and process information are not forming, either naturally or as quickly as a neurotypical child. The connections are still there to be made but without intervention, a child with autism can’t connect the dots. What this looks like in each child with autism is different but always results in some form of socialization or communication developmental delays. This leaves the child with autism lost in their social world and wondering how to connect.
In applied behavior analysis (ABA), behavioral scientists (BCBAs) are able to assess the language and communication skills missing in early childhood based on developmental milestones. Children with autism are gifted learners but they learn differently because their neural pathways are routed differently. Through assessment, BCBAs are then able to figure out how our little students learn, what skills are missing, and how to connect those missing dots. This happens in three really key ways.
The first is one on one therapy (think personal trainer at the gym) to really teach to the student. The next is to help the child with autism apply what they are learning with their peers. Remember, socialization is hard but children who are neurotypical learn from other children. To strengthen the socialization neuropathway, children with autism need to practice these skills with kids their own age. The last is transferring learned skills back to mama and papa. If a child with autism is in therapy and can do all these skills at a treatment clinic but not at home, the neural pathway is not fully formed.
Therapy at ABA Consultants
Instructional ABA Consultants runs autism clinics for children ages 2 ½ to 6 years old (in addition to our home-based therapy for older children). Our clinics (Naperville & Oak Lawn IL, Castle Rock CO, and coming soon Northside Chicago) have a Preschool Instructor designing the socialization component of our students’ days and BCBAs designing the individualized instruction. Parents are at the core of treatment goals and together we’re helping their precious children make connections in their early development.
Whether you’re a parent of a neurotypical child or a child with autism know that your child’s early years are precious. While we all can dream of our children functioning like that baby elephant walking around fully skilled, the reality is human babies and children need shaping. We’re a social species.
So set down the tablet today, pack up all the toys the marketing teams said you needed, and let your children explore and enjoy. If your child isn’t exploring, jump in and help. If you need help teaching these skills because your child has autism (or this is a new way to parent for you) reach out. We’re all in this crazy world of parenthood together.
Okay, okay I hear you. That title! It’s a loaded one. I thought I’d just have a little fun this week with wrapping up our series about functions of behavior. I’ll explain the title in a bit.
Over the past month, IABA has republished my series on functions of behavior because it’s such an important part of working with children. It deserves an annual highlight! As a BCBA, owner of an Applied Behavior Analysis company, and boy mama this little piece of scientific knowledge guides so much of life.
Functions of behavior give us the framework for why a behavior continues to happen and lets us breathe easier knowing that all behaviors have a reason. We can start building our plan of action to address whatever it is we’re interested in changing once that behavior is identified.
Learning About Functions of Behavior
Let me back up a little and tell you why learning about functions of behavior was so life-changing for me. In doing so I’m going to go ahead and date myself. Thirteen years ago I was working as a line therapist with adolescent boys with autism who engaged in high levels of aggressive behavior. At the time there was little regulation in the applied field and while I was supervised by a BCaBA. I was not using function-based intervention because she wasn’t designing her treatment following this principle. As a new undergraduate, I knew I didn’t want to continue to work with children with autism if I couldn’t be effective. I was so frustrated for the children that our interventions weren’t working. I then decided to apply for my master’s degree with a goal to better understand behavior. I’ve been enjoying this gift for 12 years now.
One of the first things I learned in my master’s program was that behavior is maintained by the four key functions I’ve reshared this past month; escape, attention, access to tangibles, and automatically maintained behaviors. When a problem behavior occurs you want to make sure not to reinforce the behavior with what the learner is seeking.
My beautiful clients from back home? We were directed to put them in time out every time they engaged in aggression and their behaviors were maintained by escape functions. This meant each time they engaged in aggression, putting them in time out told them we were saying, “yes! That’s what I want you to do.” What should have been done instead is follow through with demands and teaching the boys how to tell us they needed a break. Their lives could have been changed using our science properly. This is a large piece of why I love ABA so much; lives change.
Using Functions of Behavior at Home
Fast forward to today and the wrap of our series. Learning about functions of behavior can be overwhelming. To think that all human behavior can be categorized into four sections and then studied from there is work by itself! This is the work we love at Instructional ABA Consultants but let me tell you this first hand as a mama, that shit is hard at home.
Raising Henry has been one of the greatest blessings of my life (Dametrius and Declan are the other two). Henry, as I’ve written, is a strong-willed child with a great big heart. Henry feels and responds to things the moment his feet hit the ground. This brings me to the title.
About a year ago I was transitioning Henry to a booster seat from his high chair. It’s a value of mine that my boys eat at the table and don’t wander around eating or zone out eating in front of a screen. I love food and want us to enjoy it together as a family. Henry? Henry had wanted no part in this family value.
I knew the function of his daily battling was escape from the table and followed him through each time for sitting. He would not back down. Frazzled, I went to my team saying I was now six months in and I still had to use strict follow-through at every meal to get Henry to sit and the end was nowhere in sight. One of our BCBAs (now supervisor & PhD!) Allaina Douglas said, “Jessie you have to pick your mountain to die on.”
What she meant was if this was an important value to my family that I would need to let go of other demands through the day that were less important and literally buckle into sitting at the table. So that’s what I did. I sat down and thought about what was really important for me with Henry so that when I made any demands, including sitting, I knew I had to be ready to follow through. This allowed me to lighten up on what wasn’t a value (PJs all day? Sure! Tv all day? No way) and hone in on what I did want to see out Henry.
Henry responded beautifully to this regarding the sitting. We then of course entered the 8-month potty training saga but hey, you win some, you lose some, but I digress. In the end, I understood that as a mama and clinician I couldn’t be function-based all day every day. That shit is exhausting. I could pick my values so that I could decide which behaviors will be allowed in my home and which ones won’t be. As my children grow up this will provide them their own moral compass to follow. I parent Dametrius way differently than Declan and Henry (as he is older) but our values are still the same.
Functions of Behavior and Being a Mom
This leads me to the second “purely mama” part of this. When you are choosing to live in a home where you are the leader and not your children it takes an incredible amount of energy. It would be super relaxing and wonderful if we could all say yes to popsicles for breakfast and binging Netflix every day. For most of this, we have different values than that for our kids (zero judgment here if these are your values!).
Being a leader in the family means you will have to implement rules and therefore boundaries. This is work! In order to do this, we as parents have to learn how to rest, reflect, and take care of ourselves so we can implement our values in the home. When we don’t we risk either giving in or blowing up. While this happens to the best of us, I know personally that I want this to be the exception to my parenting, not the rule.
In order to do the meaningful work of choosing what goes in your home and standing on that mountain, we as parents have to be at home with ourselves. That means spending time with our own thoughts, deciding our own values, and creating a self-care plan. The time with your thoughts and deciding values provides a compass for your home. Remember, attacking every single behavior and function in your family home would be exhausting! Picking your mountain means picking what’s important to you.
The self-care plan is included because, let’s be honest, as a mama or papa shit gets real fast. At any given moment our children are doing the next “please don’t do that thing.” We can navigate through our days with intention (most of the time!) when we’re rested and healthy. For me, this looks like morning meditation, evening journaling, and drinking more tea than wine these days. It also looks like saying I’m sorry when I do slip up and yell or holding myself accountable if I gave in when I didn’t want to.
Last night Henry had a high-emotion night because it had snowed and he really wanted to go outside to play at bedtime. I had to say no, it was bedtime. But I sure as shit could say yes when he asked me for a cool down bath with his swimsuit on. Rock on Henry, rock on Mama! We followed our values and I sat on my mountain. I hope this helps you find yours.
You guys, this past week has been a long and dark one. I’m so thankful for being able to write this blog. You see, I believe the universe has divine timing when we are connected to it. It always provides the lesson we need if we’re willing to listen.
I talked about why we care what others think of us and how that affects being a love warrior in last week’s blog. This led to a week of clearing a lot of energy to pave the way for living connected to my own divine nature and authentic voice. Through finding the strength in my voice I’m able to give my children the example they need to grow up using theirs. I can then also use my voice to empower other mamas to raise love warriors. Let’s dig in.
Embracing Love by Denying Hate
Okay, I said this past week has been a long dark one. The universe has been sending a lot of negative energy my way through different interactions. People have been coming into my life with their own insecurities and I have been asking them to leave (politely). I’ve been doing this using vulnerability and defenselessness. For, as my friend Heather reminded me, “Our strength is in our defenselessness.” I have nothing to hide and no space for hate.
As human beings, we all have traits we exhibit when we are in fear and therefore in defense of ourselves. In the current world climate, I believe we’re unpacking generations of keeping up appearances at all costs. Then, when our perceived sense of self (our ego) is brought into question, we may explode at others. Does this make sense? And that’s been exactly what’s been happening to me, people are exploding and I’m calming saying, “hate begets hate, this is not the way.”
It’s like a mask to protect ourselves from what we fear to be true about ourselves. The most common example is when someone points out something to us that reminds us of what we’re ashamed of, so we attack. Everyone does this but most people don’t consciously do it to hurt other people. If they do that’s a whole different issue.
In this defense of self versus defenselessness what happens is we can become the person other people are saying we are. We think by lashing out and becoming the biggest person in the room that we’ll “show them” how wrong the attacker is and how right we are. You guys, this is totally backward and the foundational problem to almost every human problem in the world.
You see, we are all born divinely. The spirit creates us for this perfect path. And then we meet our environment. The environment is the people, places, words, and experiences that we all go through. If we’re lucky, we’ll be born into a home that lifts us up and teaches us to live with a brave heart. If we’re not that lucky, we’re taught to fit in and push down who we truly are.
This could be from well-intentioned parents who don’t want their daughters to be fat and bullied, or gay and bullied, and so on & so forth. Or it could be from your own childhood insecurities or your perceived identity that you want your family to look like outside of the home. Even worse, it could be from an emotionally or physically abusive home. But here’s the thing; at any time we can all collectively decide to call bullshit on who the world is telling us to be. That’s a love warrior. And love warriors need strength and armor to protect them from an environment that can crush their divine nature.
Raising Your Love Warriors
There is only one way to raise a love warrior; be a love warrior yourself. That’s it, you guys. Our children demand that we love ourselves with our whole hearts because it shows them it’s okay to love themselves with their whole heart. If we continue to conform ourselves to fit into the new mom group, the gym, work, finding a ‘perfect’ partner, or living up to our family’s unrealistic expectations of ourselves, all we are really doing is telling our children to fake who they are.
If our children fake who they are they will lose themselves. I don’t know about you but I’m a grown-ass woman just now fully waking up and standing tall as myself. I’m not going to lie–it’s hard as hell. I have to model this strength for my children so when the world gets noisy they have the armor they need to be true to their own hearts.
I don’t know about you but I do not want my children to ‘fit in,’ ever. I want them to soar through the world on the wings God gave them, roots in the earth. In my house we stand up to bullies, we stand up for ourselves, we stand up for what is good and what is kind. We honor our imperfections, hold space for failure, make mistakes, and love freely. In my house we believe who we are is exactly who we are supposed to be.
Noisey world or not, we’re at home in our hearts and nothing matters more than that.
P.S. Total credit to the amazing Heather Shannon, my soul sister. And with love to my Aunt Linda.
Last week I wrote to you about being authentic both at home and work. This is a big topic and I feel like I’ve only identified one wave in the ocean of authenticity. Today I want to write about one big way I believe we all get lost. It’s the next wave per se I’d like to ride with you on this journey. The wave I want to discuss is why we care so much about what other people say about us and how this blocks authenticity.
Teaching Our Children to Deal with Hurt and Shame
Does anyone else who grew up in the 90s remember this little phrase; sticks and stones may break my bones but words will never hurt me? I sure do and what total bullshit. During my childhood, I was picked on a lot for how I looked and behaved. I was not a model-thin child but was by no means fat. That didn’t stop the bullying and actually caused me to gain a lot of weight that then led to some awful eating disorders.
I was also socially awkward (still am!) and got made fun of when I didn’t behave like the quote-unquote cool kids. Parenting techniques of the 90s? Push it down, it doesn’t matter, move on, and focus on school. Now, while I realize most parents were doing their best, this did nothing to heal the wounds caused in the schoolyard, as well as growing wounds at home.
Fast forward to 2020 and today’s topic is still a pervasive problem. Why?
The first is that we live in a world where people, both children and adults, put each other down. The second is as a society we’re not emotionally responding and providing healing when someone is emotionally hurt on a large scale, including ourselves.
Now I know some amazing mamas and papas raising their children to live authentically, develop shame tolerance, and show up as themselves despite what the world is saying. They’re raising love warriors. We need more parents like this and children raised like this. Yet, on a large scale, dealing with hurtful words isn’t being addressed.
To address this issue, I believe we each need to take a different individual approach. This approach is to work through our own demons which cause us to stay small. We need to fill up our own cups and overflow the world with the light starting with our children. From there we’ve got some work to do because people are marginalized everywhere based on their differences.
Starting the Learning Process
So how do we do this? My sister actually posed this question to me last night. My answer? A lot of therapy. Just kidding! Well, kind of. You see, I’m 33 years old and I’ve got a long learning history of giving when I don’t have the energy to give, pushing down my own desires, personality, and labeling what’s in my heart as selfish. Was anyone else raised that way? To label their own needs as selfish? Are you unintentionally raising your children this way? Or is there another label that’s pervasive in your home?
This is shame plain and simple. Shame tells us who we are is not good enough and we should push down our desires and stay the same. It’s a tricky little bastard and why we care so much about what the world is saying.
To answer my sister’s question authentically, my true answer is to first shine a light on the problem. Shame cannot survive when we expose it but once exposed your open wounds need care and attention. It would be a wonderful thing if this shame was identified and the world wrapped its arms around us. In truth, we’re lucky to have two or three people in a lifetime who can do this; one being ourselves. For our children, this has to be us because it is a rare thing for a child to meet another child with an open heart when they are shame spiraling. When children do know this, you’re dealing with an angel on earth. We need to raise our children to be these angels! I’m Dametrius’s new mama and fully aware of the angel in my home. I’ll be a lucky mama to have Henry and Declan follow in his path.
Responding to a Shame Spiral
So how about you? How do you respond when you are in a shame spiral? Do you begin to believe either the things the world is saying about you or the terrible things you may say to yourself? Do call yourself names or agree with the insults? These can be subtle or large in nature. It could be you love math and someone tells you you’re bad at it, that your jeans don’t zip and you call yourself fat, or it could be you’re in a heterosexual marriage and fully know you are gay. Small, big–they are all wounds.
What do you do when your body is hurt? When you’ve fallen down and are bleeding. You grab a band-aid, right? You provide care to help the wound heal. It’s easy when you can see it. But when wounds are inside of us it’s easy to shove them down and ignore them. What happens then is a mess.
We begin to lose who we were born to be, can’t give what we’re designed to give to the world, and oftentimes we start taking our shit out on everyone else or ourselves. Personally, I take my shit out on myself but I know a great deal of people (sitting President anyone? The backyard bully to all of Washington) who take it out on other people.
How do we fix this pervasive problem in our own lives and thus society?
This week we’re just addressing wave number one and, if you’re brave enough, trying to dive into someone else’s wave too. This week I’d love my readers to walk alongside me and think about ways you are calling yourself names (mine is selfish, among others) and begin to unpack it. Once you see why you’re name-calling, give your great big heart a great big hug and do something to recharge. If you’re brave maybe reach out to a friend and let them know something you love about them. Or notice someone struggling and offer a listening ear. Then get ready because next week we’ve got to talk about raising love warriors at length. We’ve also got to spend some real time on people in power and marginalizing minorities, something I’ve been thinking about as I write through this week’s topic.
I don’t know about you but I refuse to raise my boys in a world that they can’t be who they are. Step one? Mama needs to be who she is.