Following a two-year stint of complete isolation from the outside world Mollie has, very gradually, been making steady progress. This has been helped greatly by the medication ‘fluoxetine’ which does appear to have reduced the anxiety that Mollie associated with the outside world. I must add however that it does absolutely nothing for her impulsivity, need for control, demand avoidance or her inability to moderate her own actions/responses in relation to the needs of others.
We have gradually been able to encourage Mollie to take part in more activities outside of the home. In the last few weeks alone we have managed walks, the park, bowling and swimming. These recent achievements have given Mollie the confidence and the desire to attempt to play in the street with other children again.
Only a couple of years ago this was a complete disaster and was instrumental in our worst and most difficult period with Mollie. It will be interesting to see how Mollie will cope now that she is two years older, has more understanding of her condition and has slightly lower anxiety levels due to taking ‘fluoxetine’. While I am so happy to see her engaging with other children and playing outside in the fresh air I can’t help but have extremely mixed feelings about these recent events. At the moment she is coping but I am concerned about how she will cope with this level of socializing as she becomes more exposed to it and when the, all to familiar, ‘honeymoon’ period wears off. The thought of going back to where we were a few years ago simply makes my stomach churn because I really don’t think that I could do it all again.
Mollie has already had a minor blow-up at one of our neighbours. He had very kindly noticed Mollie’s Ipad unattended in the street and so, for obvious reasons, he took it inside for safe keeping. Mollie was playing with his daughter at the time and both he and his wife have always been very accommodating and patient with Mollie. When Mollie realised that her Ipad was not where she had left it she, understandably, became extremely stressed. However once Mollie realised that her Ipad was safe and sound in her friend’s house she proceeded to tear a strip off the parent responsible for actually protecting her prized possession. I can understand her confusion because he hadn’t informed her of what he had done, which would have saved her a lot of stress and upset. However tearing a strip off our neighbour is not conducive to her being liked or conducive to other parents wanting their children to play with her. PDA or not some levels of behaviour simply aren’t seen as acceptable and so if Mollie is going to successfully interact in the ‘outside world’ I really have to try my best to help her to adjust some of her behaviours.
I think that one of the main difficulties for Mollie is that she appears to have huge difficulty with empathy at an emotional level. She just couldn’t see the other parent’s point of view or that he had done what he had done to protect her possession. Instead she just saw red mist because her sole interpretation was seeing the incident only from her own perspective and the stress that it had caused. She just didn’t, for one moment, view the incident from his perspective. I would have dealt with the situation, even as a child, by saying thank you and feeling mightily relieved. As an older child I may have respectfully asked if he could, in the future, inform me if he was saving something for me so that I didn’t worry? Mollie’s way of dealing with it was to be rude, disrespectful and feel completely within her rights for doing so while not thinking for one moment of how her behaviour would be viewed by the other parent.
I understand Mollie and why she reacted in the way that she did but I thought that I would use this opportunity to delve a little bit deeper into her mind-set. The reason being is that although Mollie is understood at home, she is not understood in the ‘outside world’. Behaviour that we view as simply ‘Mollie being Mollie’ is ok at home because that is the one place where she can truly relax and be herself. However if she wants to play and be accepted in the outside world it is imperative that I try to teach her what behaviour is and isn’t acceptable and why that is. She knows at an intellectual level but she doesn’t appear to understand why at an emotional level. I need to try to reach her emotional understanding of situations.
If she wants to interact in the outside world she will have to play by some of their rules or it will be a failure. If this happens there is only one looser and that will be Mollie. I desperately want her confidence to grow and for her to be able to function more successfully with her peers and their parents. This will not happen unless she can begin to understand how a neurotypical thinks and views social interaction in the same way that I have had to understand how an individual with PDA thinks and views social interaction. Hopefully, with education on both sides PDA and neurotypical can meet somewhere in the middle. The ‘outside world’ will need to understand and to accommodate Mollie’s need to feel in control but she needs to understand that some of her behaviours E.G. speaking disrespectfully to a child’s parent, using abusive language or hitting another child just aren’t acceptable or ok.
Understanding Mollie’s Mind
- Mollie appears to view and register people as objects rather than people with fears, needs, anxieties and so on. She even mentioned on one of her mini posts that she used to wish that her friends were dolls. She has always used me as a toy, a plaything for her own entertainment. Dressing me up, doing my hair, my make-up, telling me what I can play with and what I can say. Telling me off if I ever veer of script of don’t conform.
- With the family she takes delight in playing practical jokes, stealing our items and then watching our reactions and the drama unfold. She never appears to make any concessions for how this method of entertaining herself may actually feel for us.
- People appear to be things that she uses for pure entertainment without understanding the impact that she has on them emotionally and how this may make them view her.
- She has never been able to accommodate my needs or adjust her own behaviour if she was upsetting or stresses me out.
- She can use empathy to manipulate and control but it is almost as if this is at a purely intellectual level with no emotional attachment at all. Mollie appears to move people around in her environment like a master chess player moves his chess places. Skilfully moving his pieces around a board in order to achieve the desired outcome.
- Mollie can easily understand what and why certain things upset her but then she doesn’t appear to have the ability to use this information as a valuable insight into how her actions can evoke these feelings in others.
This description of Mollie makes her appear callous and unemotional but I don’t think that this is the case. I just think that the part of Mollie’s brain that should process the thoughts and needs of others i.e. empathy appears to be misfiring. She may be able to strategically plan how to keep people where she wants them but I really do think that she has extreme difficulties in understanding how this may make other people feel.
Mollie has also made the following comments which I find extremely interesting and which has also helped me to understand her a little bit more.
- Mollie has openly admitted and expressed confusion when I asked her if she thinks about the needs of others when she is interacting with them. When I asked her if she ever wondered how another person may be feeling when they are playing with her she was mystified. I tried to explain this concept to her and I informed her that when I am with another person I just automatically know if I am boring someone, upsetting somebody or hurting someone and so I adjust my behaviour accordingly. Mollie says that she never does this when she is interacting with other people and appeared rather astonished at the whole concept.
- Something that is really interesting is that when I was discussing the incident that had occurred with our neighbour she said that she had reacted strongly because she needed him to know that he mustn’t do it again. In her eyes she can only make her point, safe in the knowledge that the other person understands her, if she shows an extreme reaction. She had assumed that simply telling him not to do it again would not have the desired effect because he wouldn’t adequately understand her stress and pain unless she showed him.
- This is made more interesting by the fact that Mollie can, at times, show empathy and adjust her behaviour on the rare occasion that I have an extreme reaction. Sometimes, when I am desperate, I may have a little meltdown of my own. I may visibly show how naffed off I am with her at that moment.
- So, is it possible that Mollie can only pick up on and therefore react to strong and dramatic reactions. Therefore, does she interpret this to mean that in order for her to invoke empathy in others that she also needs to use similar, strong and dramatic reactions.
- If a normal reaction is too subtle for her to pick up on or to successfully read then she may assume that the neurotypcial world is the same which could explain, to a certain degree, why her reactions are always so dramatic and over the top.
The neurotpical world relies on subtle signals between us and calm discussion so that we can navigate the social highway with the least disruption. Perhaps Mollie cannot function with subtle and needs extreme signals to navigate the social highway. Is this where the two worlds collide and cause her so many problems.
If Mollie is going to succeed in her latest venture then I have to think of ways to try to help her to understand that some aspects of her character are just not going to be tolerated in the outside world and why. I also need to help her to understand what another person may be thinking, their reasons for doing certain things and how they may interpret Mollie’s behaviour towards them. This is made all the harder by the fact that Mollie is highly resistant to any form of teaching, only opens up occasionally and does not like discussing her feelings or being told how to behave.
I have told her that I love her and that she will always have me in this world. However I have also told her that if she wants to interact in the outside world that she needs to learn about neurotypical people and to try to understand them in the same way that I had to learn about her. I have told her that I can help her and that I can teach her in this area but that she has to be wanting and willing to learn therefore she can come to me when or if she ever wants to learn more.
We have discussed the incident with the neighbour and we used role play to try to assist Mollie to see the other person’s point of view and how that person would have viewed Mollie. We left the Ipad in the garden and she pretended to be the neighbour while I narrated what he would have thought “Oh dear, Moll has left her Ipad out, it could get stolen and so I will take it inside and keep it safe for her”. Mollie took the Ipad inside and then I knocked on the door and started to tear a strip off her.
I then proceeded to explain that reacting in the way she had was not very nice for the neighbour because he had only been doing a good turn. I then pointed out that the neighbour would possibly think “I don’t like this young ladies attitude and I won’t be allowing my daughter to play with her again”. When she was in role play she did seem to be able to understand the other side of the coin a little bit more. With Mollie it would appear that she has to actually experience a situation in order to know what it feels like. Her social imagination may appear, on the surface, better than you would typically see in someone with ASD but, in Mollie’s case, it really does appear to be lacking in any depth.
This doesn’t mean that Mollie doesn’t have the ability to feel true empathy at an emotional level but simply that we may need to find a new way of uncovering it for her.
My friend Julia has PDA and she has extremely good empathy compared to Mollie and indeed to most people. So, as PDA is a spectrum condition I am sure that difficulties with empathy can vary between individuals and I can only speak from my experiences of Mollie. However I only know Julia as an adult and so I cannot speak for how she perhaps expressed herself or appeared to others as a child. Was her empathy always there naturally or is it something that has become much better with maturity? Time will tell for Mollie but hopefully the more I can learn and understand her the more successful ‘Team Sherwin’ will become.