Stretching beyond the comfort zone

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In our culture today anxiety impacts everyone. The threats of the modern world send many post-Columbine and post-911 kids into a state of fear, especially when it comes to trying new things or even going to school in the morning. Left unchecked, anxiety can cause an individual's world to become smaller and smaller.

In my work as a therapist, I see parents struggling to know how to respond to their children with a balance of empathy and compassionate fierceness. When should you let a child refrain from going to school or an activity, especially if anxiety leads them to want to stay home at the last minute? How do you help guide a child to see the greater benefit of perseverance in the face of fear? CSU professor and best-selling author Temple Grandin is a highly gifted woman with autism who offers insight into how caregivers can support those suffering from debilitating anxiety stretch beyond the comfort zone to a place of possibility.

Many of us know about the wonderful work that CSU professor Temple Grandin has done to improve conditions for animals. With several books to her credit and an award-winning HBO movie starring Claire Danes detailing how she developed her specific talents, Temple Grandin has also guided many people with autism towards more productive, enjoyable lives. The perspective she offers may be helpful for parents of children with autism, but also for other parents whose children struggle with anxiety and other conditions that limit their ability to experience new things. Temple also highlights the role horses can play in healthy development.

At a February 2014 conference on autism in Denver, Temple described how her tenacious mother pushed for inclusion of her autistic daughter in 1950s society and how she insisted that Temple reach beyond her anxiety to find ways to participate and be included in the larger world. She also underlined how horses helped pull her out of her shell and allowed her to develop a sense of her own confidence and ability to be successful.

Temple's travels in the world of academia and beyond have opened her eyes to the number of people on the autism spectrum who hold important jobs. She has met with scientists working on the Mars Rover to top programmers in Silicon Valley and agrees with the sentiment that many of the creative people on the leading edge of science today have the gift of autism. But, she asks, "why is it that one geeky kid goes to Silicon Valley while another one stays in the basement?" Some kids are using their passions and interests to develop skills with real marketable value while others--equally smart and capable--are not. Temple warns that "too many smart kids are getting addicted to video games." She goes on to say that they are becoming recluses instead of being gently pushed outside of their comfort zone so that they can be exposed to things that can expand their minds, interests, and--ultimately--possibilities for the future.

Temple underlines that there is no clearcut answer. When speaking about kids with autism, she says you have to know when sensory overload makes it impossible for a child to do something versus when gentle firmness may help a child find an activity he or she will really enjoy. She recounts a story of a family traveling to Mexico. They arrive at a pyramid and the child refuses to climb it. They insist. He reaches the top and is ecstatic. Months later he is still fascinated by what he saw and did that day. Was it too much? Well, Temple says, maybe if he hadn't enjoyed it, yes. But, since he did, no. It was the right amount of push. No perfect formula, but a reminder to stay connected and to empathize with a child's fears while at the same time holding the greater possibility of what is possible if, as a team, caregiver and child are able to push through fear and anxiety to experience something new.

What strikes me most about Temple's story is the way that her mother combined acceptance, compassion, empathy, and fierceness in her parenting approach. She valued Temple's uniqueness enough to help her develop unique interests, and she sought out environments and people where her daughter could expand those interests. She wanted Temple to be included, and so she decided upon the essentials that would help her to belong in society--the ability to say hello, to shake hands, to say please and thank you, and to take turns. She also insisted that her daughter develop a sense of courage.

I see courage with kids working at the ranch--the courage to come to a new place, to greet the furry dog in the parking lot, to say hello to a horse, and finally to climb up on the horse's back. Each step can be a turning point back to comfort or a stepping stone to a new adventure.

Temple might never have discovered her love of animals if her mother hadn't insisted she go to her aunt's ranch in the summer. Temple recalls she had a choice--go to the ranch for a week or for the whole summer. If you have seen the HBO movie or read her book, you know that when she got there she began to find tools to manage her own anxiety and she discovered how her unique perspective helped her to relate to and understand animals. For a couple of years in high school, it was too hard for her to really participate in class. The challenge was just to show up and be present, and so she did just that. Luckily, she also found solace--and a place to excel--in the horse barn. At a young age she learned to clean the stalls and care for the herd. This gave her a sense of accomplishment. "The only place I wasn't teased," Grandin says, "was in the special interests--horseback riding and woodworking."

As a parent, therapist, and educator, I really subscribe to the notion of "challenge by choice." It's a philosophy advanced by adventure education that empowers each participant to have the ability to say yes or no when engaging in any activity. So, yes, we want to give our kids the choice to decide for themselves. However, the full picture is more complex, because anxiety prevents some of our kids from truly making choices.

When a child says no, we can respond from a place of compassion and empathy. We can imagine what it feels like in their shoes while also holding the bigger field of what is possible. We don't have to get attached to the outcome or respond with a "yes" that also comes from a place of anxiety or urgency. If a child chooses not to stretch into the new it is not a verdict on us as a leader or even on the child. It is just what is happening in one particular moment.

When faced with a child's resistance, we don't want to bowl him over with our own enthusiasm. Yet we may find a way to subtly scoop the child up in our positive energy, just as we know to take a young baby who is crying into our arms. Sometimes we move this crying baby to a place of peace and calm; sometimes we wrap our arms around him and move him to an environment that is more exciting and full of possibility.

As Temple says, she never would have found many of the interests that developed her talents and her confidence if her mother had let her stay in the comfort of her own home or locked in her own repetitive thoughts. "Kids won't get fixated on stuff unless they are exposed to it. Expose them to interesting things." Finally, she warns, "Don't throw your kids into the deep end of the pool...but if they don't stretch they don't develop."

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