I heard grunting from the kitchen and knew what it meant. My son Alex was trying hard to make his own breakfast but was locked in a battle with his arch nemesis, the butter knife.
To him, spreading jam on his toast is just another in a long line of seemingly impossible demands on a body that he finds hard to communicate with and control. It doesn’t help that he’s had a phobia of knives since a disastrous earlier attempt at teaching himself how to cut.
But today another phobia was proving even more problematic… his fear of trying.
From an early age we’re taught that if you just work hard enough you can achieve anything you want. That effort breeds success, and therefore failure comes from not trying. If you don’t try you can’t succeed, gotta be in it to win it, the sky’s the limit, reap what you sow!
But what if you try SO. HARD. every single day and success is still elusive? What if the definition for that success has been set by and for people whose bodies work differently to yours?
Because let me tell you, this kid tries. Every day he struggles at things that most people take for granted, trying to make his body do what he wants it to do and make himself fit into a world that’s built to suit other people. But we don’t tend to reward people for that kind of effort, the kind that doesn’t measure up to our definitions of success, and so inevitably he spends much of the time feeling like a failure.
And when you do that long enough, well, eventually you just stop trying. You might even become afraid to try, and this is where Alex was at. It had become scary for him, such a negative experience (even painful at times) that as soon as he was asked to try the anxiety set in and quickly became overwhelming for him.
Unfortunately, on the outside this fear looked a whole lot like a bunch of other things – laziness, stubbornness, non-compliance. He would do anything to avoid what he saw as inevitable failure, and that was getting him into a lot of trouble at school… which of course piled on more of the bad stuff and made trying seem even less like something he should want to do.
He was constantly being asked to “try harder”, which of course made no sense to him because he’d been there, he’d tried really really REALLY hard and still failed. But since most people aren’t aware of how hard he tries, of the amount of effort required of him on a daily basis, these efforts had gone largely unnoticed to everyone except him.
It takes a lot of courage to keep trying when it hurts, to persist in the face of failure, and yet it’s rarely even acknowledged let alone admired. We’re so fixated on goals that we only reward success at the end. We never acknowledge what an enormous feat of courage it can be to pick up a pencil and try to write your name when it literally hurts your hand to do so. We don’t measure how brave it is to try reading a single word aloud, or the dozens of coordinated actions it takes to make that first loop in your shoelace.
Instead, we brand kids as lazy, unmotivated or non-compliant when we should be asking ‘Have they had enough chances to experience success?’ And not just the sticker-on-a-chart type of success, but opportunities where the trying is a positive experience in itself. To be inspired to work towards and reach goals that are relevant and meaningful to them, and to know what achievement feels like.
With Alex, the focus right now is on reducing his anxiety about failure. This requires two things: helping him find the courage to keep trying, and setting him up for success without setting the bar too low. It can be tricky sometimes to find that sweet spot that lies between too-easy and too-hard, where things are challenging and stimulating but not boring or overwhelming.
Back to breakfast. We started with lots of practice just holding a butter knife, letting him have fun waving it back and forth like a flag or a symphony conductor while he watched me spread the toast. After a while we eased into using that same motion to have a go at spreading soft and easy things like Nutella. He was cautious at first, quick to abandon the knife at the first sign of trouble. But we kept going, little by little taking small steps, until finally his big moment came.
And as he took that victorious bite into his first piece of self-buttered toast, he uttered my favourite Alex quote of all time.
“Mmm. Tastes like achievement.”
About the Author
Bec Oakley is a special needs advocate, writer, blogger, and a parent of two boys with autism in Australia. Autism is part of what makes her and her kids who they are, so she’s passionate about helping people understand what it’s all about. Check out her excellent blog, Snagglebox.com.