Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Reflections: Dibs in Search of Self

Every child is born different. But some are more different than others, that understanding them requires a special skill-set comprising of patience, insight, faith, the ability to look at the world through the child's eyes, the courage to look into ourselves as seen by the child, and above all, an unending well of unconditional love and empathy. Perhaps one needs to get in touch with one's self before even trying to comprehend how the other person is reacting to us, and what it really means. A mind-boggling problem has no fault of its own; it's merely our limitation in not trying hard enough to isolate the variables, and not being open-minded enough to attempt different approaches to solve the problem. A problem that is abandoned as being hard and unsolvable will never be solved, although it will continue to retain an unjust label.

Dibs is a five year old who doesn't talk, play or interact with people. He has violent fits of temper tantrums when it's time to go home from school, and can never address himself in first person... the word "I" is unfamiliar to him. The aggrieved parents, mourn in humiliation for having been burdened with such a child, and console themselves that Dibs is mentally retarded, much beyond their help. When doctors and psychiatrists are perplexed and are ready to cast off Dibs as an unsolvable anomaly, Dr. Axline steps in as a miraculous intervention. Through her innovative child-therapy paradigm called "Play Therapy", Dr. Axline provides Dibs with the opportunity to get in touch with his innermost self, and helps him unlock his fear, anger, resentment, sadness and utter loneliness. Dibs not only emerges as a sensitive child, slowly shedding layers of emotional withdrawal, but also exhibits superior intelligence far surpassing his age. This is a true life story of a young boy, who grappled with himself in trying to understand himself and the world around him better.

Dibs' story is one of resilience and faith. Having hidden himself in the labyrinth of hurt and rejection, he found his way back to the surface, passing through the winding mazes of his suppressed emotions and bravely crumbling the walls of defense he had built around him. One of the most painful things to me is feeling the pangs of a child, aching for love and acceptance, being misunderstood, and unfairly rejected by the parents themselves. To children, parents are the essential blanket of security and comfort into which they can always be assured of protectively snuggling for basic warmth and love. Stripping the child of such an essential garment and leaving him in the middle of a strange and cold place, lost and scared, unaware of whom to turn to, is beyond cruel. Suffice to say that I spent many parts of the book being teary-eyed and wanting to reach into the book and give the poor deprived child a hug. Dibs' reaction to run inside himself and lock himself up securely, away from the world of people, away from hurt and loneliness, can very well be understood.

But Dibs was a special child. When a person lent a rope for help, he bravely caught onto it and clambered his way up, however hard the journey became. And his parents, despite their prior mistakes, made an effort to look into themselves, identify their mistakes and redeem their bonds with the child. As Dr. Axline herself admits, such a successful story where parent and child both do their best in reaching out to each other, and in learning about themselves, is quite rare indeed. Reading through this tale reminded me of many more young children whom I'd met recently, casually classified as "emotionally challenged and disturbed" and put under Special Education, with a string of hope towards healing. It's quite surprising how such children open up in a flurry despite remaining mute and withdrawn for hours together. A single statement by me, "If you have any questions, you can ask me. Feel free to tell me whatever you want as you play", elicited a sudden response, "Can I tell you something then? Sometimes I get very angry... yes I do. Mom yells and I get even angrier." The kid's face and his words will remain seared in my memory. You see, all day long no-one had asked him to open up and talk about whatever he wanted, with the assurance that the other person will listen. It was as simple as that to get through to the child. He had no pressure to answer specific questions, no pressure to perform , that judged his capacity, his intelligence, or his worth. He didn't have to bother remembering colors, spellings, months in a year, or how to add numbers. He was given the opportunity to just talk about anything. But I wish I were a child-therapist, for I was clueless on how to properly respond to him except by showing my concern and interest in his conversation.

Dr. Axline's pioneering work in Play Therapy has been quite an eye-opener to me. Her immense faith in children and her simple, yet profound philosophy that children need not be restrained and pushed into rigid boundaries is quite a lesson for all of us. I've always held the view that children's seemingly random behavior does contain plenty of meaning and insight; their expression is just so different from our notions of meaningful expression, that adults completely miss the insights that emerge. It's true that adults often interject with a more definitive pattern of play... a child who starts to play with building blocks, is immediately directed into an agenda that makes more educative sense to us, "Let's build a house now", "Tell me what colors these blocks are". Kids have been branded with low IQ, when instead of successfully doing the task of classifying wooden blocks based on their shapes and colors, some three-year-olds end up building a Choo-Choo train with the blocks and fail the test. To me such children have far higher IQ for exhibiting such creativity! (apart from being absolutely adorable to do so!). Performance in such tests and their behavior are no measures of a child's competence. Education and directed learning are of course important, but Dr. Axline's therapy demonstrates that uninhibited, judgment-free expression helps children get more in-tune with themselves, and it is vital for kids to have such an opportunity every once in a while. The therapy also demonstrates that children are taught to be more self-reliant in the world, and are led to accept reality as it is, with the understanding that nothing in the world can be completely controlled. I guess an important element is that Dr. Axline reaches out and treats the child as an adult, appealing to the mature and rational side of him, rather than babying him with child-talk and bribes.

But I do have some questions and concerns with this paradigm. During many therapy sessions Dibs displays intense anger and hate towards people who had hurt him, and his expressions disturbed me a little. Dr. Axline patiently let him deal with his anger and Dibs did get over his negative feelings with a more positive outlook. But it was marvelous and unbelievable to me that a child could re-arrange his feelings with such clarity, deal with them and get over them so maturely, with hardly any probing or direction from the therapist. What if a child doesn't resolve his negativity as well as Dibs? What should the therapist do? Despite all my understanding of positive reinforcement, Dr. Axline's approach was devoid of such explicit reinforcements, that I'm doubtful it will work with children in need of acceptance. All these questions are of course unreasonable to be answered with this one book, but Dr. Axline has another book called "Play Therapy", which has promptly entered my wishlist.

Reading this book was a personally moving experience. Dr. Axline's writing is so profoundly deep and insightful, and her prose did not give the slightest indication of her being an academician. The words were rich and beautiful, bringing to fore the beautiful complexity of the human psyche.


Srishti said...

sounds like an amazing book. and an amazing post btw... i can easily relate with dibs..

Sanjini said...

I have the same questions that you had at the end of the post. If you find out let me know too.

Its easier said that adults should be more loving and less restricting to such special children. Adults also go through a lot - the pushes and pulls of living in this world. Under such circumstances not all parents are able to spend time in understanding and coping up with children. Its just something I felt.

I will try to see if there is any online material about play therapy - I am interested to know more about it myself.

Neeraja said...

Srishti - All of us can relate with Dibs, the book is a different and interesting read.

Sanjini - Sure, I'll probably write another post if I find some answers. The online material I found weren't that helpful. I plan on reading her other book soon. If you find some other material, please share too :)

It's no doubt true that the challenges faced by parents in handling special children are hard. But in this particular story, Dibs' situation was caused and aggravated by the parents. No child is born with a stamp of "emotional withdrawal". The child's reaction is due to the way they get treated by parents, and that's what upsets me the most. Despite having no neurological problems and being a prodigy, he was still treated as though he had some mental deficiency.

SecondSight said...

Nice review :) I was especially interested to see how you'd like the ending of this book.. and a little disappointed (in the book) that someone who knows a lot more about psychology still had those same unanswered questions- all this while I thought maybe I'd missed something:)
One of the things that I still wonder is- if Dibs were to be 'studied' today, would he be tagged as being autistic/ having Aspergers syndrome?
The other point I came across in other discussions of this book was about how children teach adults to be parents- If adults are not prepared to deal with the vagaries of a growing child, they end up looking to the child to show them the way, just with positive reinforcement.
It's easy to see a situation like this developing if you imagine a highly introverted, almost anti-social parent, who has a child with the same 'genetic' (??) tendencies- Neither the adult nor the child knows how to work past those barriers, which could spiral down to a situation like this..

priti said...

Nice review there Neeraja...I could definitely relate to this post as I interact with these kids everyday...And for the most part what amazes me is that every parent who comes in for a study have learnt to accept the fact that their children have some kind of disorder.

I've also seen the other side where parents are in complete denial of their kids disorder. This makes the life of the children so much more miserable. They have a mind of their own and the way they perceive things (for instance learning to use a simple tool) is very different from what normal children do...It is frustrating, intriguing and sometimes amazing to see these kids do some behavioral tasks....Maybe some of your unexplained threads in the book is just the way these minds work .... Maybe they just need something to hold on to, someone who can trust them...but with psychology these things are never clear and needs more evidence from an emotional processing point of view.

And everytime I interact with these kids I just think they are too sweet, extremely well behaved...and I feel like the social withdrawal is partly due to society and the way other kids look at them....And to make them feel normal the therapy should start at home with the Kid's parents. I'd love to get my hands on this book at some point.

Neeraja said...

SecondSight - The principle of Play Therapy by itself does vibe well with my limited understanding of psychology and children. Children do open up when left alone. I've heard quite a few epiphanies from M, during the oddest and least expected moments, that most of our fundamental understanding of her is through such spurious bursts :) The gaps are perhaps due the therapy not being introduced from an academic perspective. Will resolve it soon ;)
I don't think Dibs would be classified as Autistic even today. His learning abilities were exceptional and his social skills improved so rampantly, through merely open expression. None of his symptoms in the book seemed like Autism to me, but Autism has such a varied spectrum that diagnosis through these descriptions is also unrealistic...

I certainly believe in and have also observed quite a few parent-child relationships that reach their equilibrium, despite starting on rocky foundations. Similar to any other relationship, I think it's a sub-conscious necessity/urge for both parent and child to gain each others' acceptance, and this urge will drive them to set a balance and strike a bond, of some sort.

It's also true children inherit parent's traits, and this is nature's way of ensuring harmony :). Contrary to what we might think, an introverted parent and child get along perfectly well, cos they're quite similar to each other and have corresponding needs on acceptance and interaction styles. My family is teeming with such examples ;)

The barriers arise when the basic urge to establish a bond (the parental instinct at the subconscious), is either weak, or is terribly misplaced (due to denial), and the child is not developed enough to deal with this. In Dibs' case both parent and child, once they started the introspection because of their urge to reconnect, things fell into place.

Priti - Parents' denial is unfortunately the root cause for the lack of understanding. As this book emphasizes, there is a fine balance between being in denial and retaining faith in the child. One extreme is denial and the other extreme is resignation/rejection. walking the middle ground with faith and empathy is hard indeed.

And you're right, society plays a huge role in the label it inflicts and it surely worsens the condition. If normal people can have severe insecurities and depression due to need of societal validation, it's hard to imagine the extent of hurt in these children.