The Confusing Pains of Changing Habits

December 1, 2018

A few times during the last week, I told  Robert that we would move his horseback riding lesson from Sunday to Friday.  He accepted that change in a schedule without protests. However, nobody made Robert aware that during a lesson, he would have to use a blue helmet instead of a purple one. That was the last-minute switch and he was not ready for it.  As soon as the instructor told him to put on a new, blue helmet, he protested.  When, he was told that the purple one is not there anymore, he ran to the riding arena and came back with the  purple helmet already on his head.

This was one of those moments when I don’t know how to react.  Insist?  But insisting might result in failure to accomplish acceptable response.  Of course, when insisting doesn’t work, I can reduce the feeling of complete lack of influence over Robert’s behavior  by asking Robert a question. For instance, “Robert, do you really want to wear the purple helmet? Start with I, and tell me which helmet do you want to wear.” Then I should wait for an answer. Since the most severe of Robert’s problem is his very limited functional language, having Robert to respond in a full sentence could be treated as a valuable consolation prize. It could give Robert one more example of using language instead of non verbal behavior  and reduce his anxiety related to the fact that he did something other people consider wrong.  Because, even when he “wins” the battle” and continues wearing purple helmet, he is not happy, he is anxious and doubtful and he doesn’t know how to solve his dilemma.

This is what I should have done, but didn’t. In a public place, my responses are almost always tainted by the presence of other people.  I understand that each person brings to the conflict Robert has been causing, a different perspective. I feel obligated to take those perspective into account, even though, I don’t exactly understand them. Moreover, Robert usually gives the person who is in control of the physical place and who is his teacher preference over me.  Finally , there is a confusion I feel because on one hand I feel obligated to address Robert’s problem myself, on the other, I  prefer others to address Robert directly.  The effect is more doubts and hesitation on my part and more confusion on Robert;s part.

And confusion he hates.

That Friday, Robert’s instructor agreed that Robert could wear the purple helmet. She just made sure that Robert knew that the next time the blue helmet is obligatory.

Robert was fine with that. Well, for 10 seconds.

As soon as he felt that the pressure to wear blue helmet subsided, Robert discovered the freedom to do what was right.  Such freedom is a very difficult thing to deal with specially if you are used to always do what you are told  or by what you have done many times in the past.  When other people words or the past behaviors shape your reactions, then taking it upon yourself to make decision seems overwhelming.  And Robert was overwhelmed.  He moved closer to the shelf with the blue helmet, then away from it toward the riding arena. He didn’t know yet, what to do.  It took him a few more minutes to decide and many more trips between his horse and the shelf. He suffered, he was anxious.  He was confused. he made noises of frustration and patted his cheeks in short and quick motions.  He didn’t know what to do. He wanted to do what was right, what his instructor Meghan told him before, but that would mean he needed to change his habits.  The habits which suited him well for the last few months. After a few minutes, Rober was almost ready to mount his horse, Calvin, when he turned back and ran to the shelf.  He took off the purple helmet and put on the blue one.

He was still not sure that was the right decision, but as Calvin walked out of the arena to the the woody path by the edge of the lake, Robert’s doubts disappeared. He was fine.


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  1. Michael McDermott

     /  December 11, 2018

    Hi Maria,
    any update on Robert’s stomach pain (causes etc..)wising you both happy holidays.
    M. McDermott

  2. I have never written that but I believe that you are the teacher who saved Robert when he joined you classroom in March of 2010 after very damaging six months in other program.
    Thank you! Maria


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