Wednesday, July 31, 2013

"Behaviour is communication"

Carol, who used to be the "Itinerant Teacher" at Jonathan's school and would visit him a couple of times a week to assess his needs, goals, and achievements, used the words with which I've titled this post:

"Behaviour is communication."

She said this at a meeting when we were talking about some of our challenges at home with Jonathan a couple of years ago.  It might seem like a very obvious maxim to everyone else, and I don't know if it really changed anything at the time, but it stuck with me.  And every time I think of it, I'm reminded that not just Jonathan, but all of us, are expressing how we feel through what we do.

It's interesting, and fairly encouraging, to look back and see how some of the behaviours Jonathan had that used to drive us around the bend (constant repetition, screaming and fussing while walking to/from school) have eased.  But there are still challenges.

This summer on the last Sunday of each month our church has a picnic in the park:  people bring their lunch to church (or run out and buy something afterward) and gather in City Park near the splash pad.  We went at the end of June and it was really enjoyable.  When we told Jonathan we'd be doing that again this past Sunday, he was excited about it.

Unfortunately, though, Sunday was overcast and rainy, so Plan B was to have lunch in the gym.  We told Jonathan about this change and he said "OK," but when we tried to take him into the gym it was a different story.  For the last couple of years he's been very nervous and anxious in the school and church gyms; we don't know if it's the echoey sound, the wide-open space, the high ceilings, or what.  At school they've tried headphones, a weighted vest, and various other techniques, with some success, to alleviate his anxiety.  But in the gym at church -- if he goes in at all -- he clings to us with both hands as if he's going to fall off a cliff, and makes his exit as soon as he possibly can.

On Sunday when we tried to take him in, he would venture a little way and then retreat, screaming.  We thought sitting on the floor on our picnic blanket, rather than at a table, would help.  But instead he had a complete meltdown:  he collapsed on the blanket, yelling, and grabbed it as if he was trying to hold onto it to keep from falling.

So I took him out of the gym and decided just to take him home rather than forcing something he was clearly finding stressful.  He was very happy when I suggested going home, and he wanted to hold my hand the whole way as we walked.

"You didn't want to stay for lunch, huh?" I said.

And he replied succinctly:  "Saw gym -- scared."

I wish we knew what he finds scary about the gym.  He doesn't seem to have had any particular bad experience that triggered his phobia, and he used to love to spend time there, running around and practicing his basketball shots.  Considering his passion for all things ball-related, being afraid to go into a gym is a big restriction on his enjoyment of life.  But I had to commend him for being able to communicate his feelings not only with his behaviour but with his words.  A couple of years ago he couldn't have expressed that verbally; now he can.  He might not be able to explain the why, but he could explain the what in simple terms.


  1. His growth in communication must be a blessing for you and the family, Jeannie. I think it's also an indication of how you are a blessing to Jonathan, that he has grown so much in that area.

    1. Thanks, Tim. The school is so helpful too. They are always trying to get Jonathan to stretch his sentences: not just "Blue ball!" but "Can you help me get the blue ball please." So now whenever one of us yawns, Jonathan says, "I am tired."

  2. What a loving, wise and understanding mother you are, Jeannie. I love that phrase "behaviour (I'll spell it your way:) is communication." I remember a similar phrase from one of my communications classes: "You can't NOT communicate." Everything we do, in addition and often in opposition to, what we say communicates something. I suppose much of what I communicate is a mystery even to myself! I also relate to Jonathan's dislocated fear. Sometimes I just feel fearful or anxious and I really don't know why. In those cases, when I'm attentive and wise, I reach for my Father's hand. He takes me to safety just like you did for your son. Thanks Jeannie!

    1. Thanks for your comments, Judy. It's true what you say about being "attentive and wise" and reaching out to God. That's the thing that is so wonderful about kids (and not just special needs kids) -- they just say/show what they need, without all the barriers and coping mechanisms we as adults can put up. We can learn a lot from them; that's for sure.

      That's funny about the spelling! Blogger (and Word) always object when I write neighbour, behaviour, etc.

  3. Your post really gives me pause, Jeannie. My guy (now 8) stresses fairly consistently about one thing: practicing music. It isn't that he can't do it, it isn't even that he doesn't like it. Something triggers him along the way. I want to pay better attention to his behaviour next time he practices, and ignore (for now) his words, to see what he's communicating. Thanks so much for your insightful blog.

    1. I'm sure that you & he together will figure it out, Sarah!


Please leave a comment. I love to hear from readers, and I always reply!