“Keys to the Universe”: a 1st draft of truths we have come to know, co-created with my 4 year old
As I support my 4 year old in discovering his true self, he is discovering that his Zone of Genius is idea generation. We have been co-ideating lately. I call them “Keys to the Universe,” but he is adamant that this is NOT what this is — because this would mean that he’s finished thinking about them, which he is not. He has agreed to the designation of “First Draft.” (I love his brain….). I will update this periodically. Last updated 10/18/21.
There is no “neurotypical” vs. “neurodivergent” brains. Brains are either “dopamine-bound” or “not dopamine-bound.”
When some brains act mean, it is often because they are sad.
Some brains have a hard time receiving a compliment because it feels “too good” for someone to be proud of them — Downstairs Brain falls asleep blissfully, instead of maintaining its position as Guard/Protector of the Fortress.
Downstairs Brain remembers how it felt during a past stressful situation, so flips its lid anytime it remembers that feeling — even if it doesn’t remember what happened.
In my house, we listen to the Frozen 2 soundtrack a lot. Our favorite song is “Show Yourself.” The first time I heard it, I cried. I cried with the instant realization of my entire life’s purpose. Not exaggerating — in that moment, my whole world made sense. I am here to facilitate my child’s self-actualization, a role I am uniquely equipped to do. And in that moment, I actually had the surreal thought that I actually knew how I might do it.
“Why are you crying?” my 4 year old asked.
“Because this song is so very sad, and so very amazing all at once.”
“Why is it sad?”
“Because Elsa made it all the way to being a grown-up without knowing who her True Self was. She always had to wear her gloves and hide her true self, and pretend she didn’t have her powers. Her parents thought they were keeping her safe by making her hide her true self, but really it ended up making Elsa feel really confused and lonely and overwhelmed. But now she’s discovering her True Self, and now she can live happily ever after.”
“Yay Elsa! But wait… what’s a True Self?”
Some brains naturally on their own discover vague abstract things about life. Some brains benefit from deliberate instruction. Some brains do something in between. Some brains grow up fully confident and self-assured. Some brains superficially “know” a version of themselves, but then become easily persuaded by peers/society to act opposite and then overall kind-of lose track of which version they are/should be. Some brains cover up their true selves as a survival strategy, as a consequence of being “othered” in a world that invalidates them. Those brains end up as the kids, teens, and adults in my office who are so profoundly struggling and need a lot of support to discover, or re-discover, their True Selves. So while there is much I cannot control in this world, I was determined to give it a go to prevent my sweet little love from this fate.
My son and I both like “systems.” When I preparing to present a system to him, I usually first begin by “squirrelling” — gathering all the “acorns” of information out there in the e-universe, so that my system represents all available information. So I read a ton. I read everything I could get my hands on about theories of the (neurotypically biased) development of “self” in childhood. I then read about self-concept/identity formation vs. disruption for non-neurotypical brains. It was important to me to build a system that could try to be inclusive of all brains. Something simple that might be useful to my son, my patients, anyone looking for a little structure. It’s nothing fancy, but here’s what I synthesized:
True Self, as presented to a 4 year old:
What do I like?
What do I dislike?
How/what do I play?
Where do I belong?
With whom do I belong?
Likes/dislikes seem straight-forward, but not necessarily. These can vary dependent on context — i.e., I like broccoli but only when it’s roasted; I like green tea but only when I haven’t already had 2 cups of coffee. Play — an individual brain’s pursuit of joy: what types? what themes? what settings? what styles? (i.e., some brains prefer “side by side” or parallel play throughout their lifespan — it’s a total myth that these play stages are hierarchical and get “aged out of”). We talk a lot about “belonging” and “connection” in my house. Attachment/connection with people and places are part of our sense of self — because when we are in settings and with people where we feel comfortable/safe, the way we think / play / communicate is much more likely to be authentic.
Sounds intense for a 4 year old. Maybe. But for this 4 year old, it worked perfectly. We introduced the concept by interviewing all the Disney princesses (here’s part 1: Ariel) about their True Selves, then a few months later expanded to talk about ourselves. With so much of parenting far from straightforward, it’s humbling how intuitive some things actually are sometimes…
Allow me to tell you a story. I assure you, it’s one you’ve heard before. More times than you may realize.
Once upon a time, there was a Little Princess. The Little Princess was born with the magical gift of intensity. She used this intensity of spirit to create breathtakingly beautiful creations and accomplish feats of epic proportion. As a child, her eyes sparkled with wonder and excitement; her beautiful, melodic voice captivated the hearts of all who encountered her. It was clear that she would go on to do incredible things in this world (including, for example, becoming the star of a world-famous movie and the hero of millions of kids).
The thing is, the Little Princess’ intensity had its trade-offs, you see. Just as this intensity allowed the princess to create sparkling magic ice castles and magical dresses (just some examples), her nervous system was overwhelmed by the intensity of the world around her: loud sounds, the visual and auditory assault of crowds, pressure to perform. (Note: The little princess lacked a background in neuroscience, so all she knew was that she felt overwhelmed and didn’t want to attend Coronation parties — you know, just for example). The Little Princess’ intensity was also evident in the “behaviors” she communicated her big, intense feelings. Her fight/flight/”freeze” behaviors came out in the context of this intense dysregulation; sometimes people accidentally got hurt (icicle to the heart, for example).
The Little Princess experienced the physical and emotional pain of her dysregulation intensely — and rather than empower her with sensory and emotional support tools, the Little Princess was shamed. She was told to “mask” her true self, to hide her magical gifts from the world. “Conceal, don’t feel” — with full-length gloves, if you will. Stuff your feelings, hide your identity. Act like all the other princesses, and fake it so much that it becomes subconscious.
Had the Little Princess grown up in an actually inclusive kingdom, she would have been taught that all little princess/prince brains are different. She would have been taught that there is no one right way to feel, no one right way to play, no one right way to think or learn or communicate. Some princesses speak, some princesses sing, some princesses use gestures/signs, some princesses use AAC devices via buttons or typing. Some princesses mix and match communication mechanisms. Some princesses “build a snowman” with friends; some play side by side. In summary, she would have been taught that there is no right way to be a princess.
Except our Little Princess grew up in a kingdom laden with occult ableism. It looked all joyful and community-ish and even had the illusion of inclusion (trolls, anyone?), but it most certainly was not. And the longer that the people in the Little Princess’ life invalidated her emotional experience — in fact, invalidated the fundamental core of her being — the more dysregulated she became. She withdrew from her family, from her community. Then one day, in the context of extreme intense work pressure (being promoted to Queen, for example), the Little Princess became so dysregulated that she eloped to a far-away mountain. There, in the comfort of her sensory preferences, she pulled off her “gloves” and created a sparkling, glistening castle of beauty — and began the beautiful journey of discovering her True Self and her life’s meaning and purpose.
And the thing is, this storyline that I describe (which may or may not be the plot of a 1.3 billion dollar animated motion picture) celebrates this un-masking and self-discovery. This character embodies fairly obvious sensory processing, regulation, and communication differences. And yet, at NO TIME, is the character “Othered” by the writers. In my mind, the story is clearly written in such a way to criticize the way the princess’ parents forced her to mask. At no time is the Little Princess diagnosed with a medical disorder. At no time was it glorified that she receive behavioral management interventions. At no time was she represented to be broken. Instead, she is depicted as beautiful, resourceful, creative, talented, and universally loved by her family and her community. Because she IS all those things. The Little Princess’ journey toward self-discovery and self-actualization is CELEBRATED. Right now, there are millions of kids (of all neurotypes) dressed up in blue dresses and tiaras singing her anthem.
I share this analogy as an example of what could be, if we shift the narrative on autism.
As a primary care physician, every day I see the impact of what happens when society tells little princesses and princes during their formative years that they are fundamentally “not ok” and need to conform and comply with some arbitrary “default.” That their behavior, their feelings, their “social skills” or “play skills” are “wrong.” That the way they innately show up in the world needs to be corrected.
When a human being is chronically invalidated by their environments/people in their lives, that human being goes on to feel not valid. And we wonder why so many kids (and the adults they eventually become) go on to have intensely complex mental health struggles. We wonder why so many adults have not yet acquired a lens, a narrative, to understand their True Selves — or how their identity formation (or lack thereof) was invariably shaped (squashed) by all the ableist, deficit-based systems that chronically “Othered” them.
And so today, on Autistic Pride Day 2021, I invite you to reflect on all the little princesses and princes in your lives who need a new narrative. It’s never too late to learn how to love your brain. Or the ones whose narrative has not yet been contaminated. We have a chance to protect their destiny.
I’ll finish up with one more story. It’s not the plot of a $1.3 billion-grossing animated film that is so OBVIOUSLY relevant to the topic of autistic identity (I wish people would talk about this!), but it’s a good story nonetheless.
Once upon a time, there was an almost 40 year old who discovered her True Self, as yet another example of how autism is so much more than the stereotypes and misinformation propagated by professionals who don’t know better. And in so doing, she began her journey toward the pursuit of a proud autistic identity. Through books and blogs and webinars, she soaked up the wisdom of other autistic people (i.e., the real experts), and tapped into her own. And today, on Autistic Pride Day, she shared her True Self with a 4 year old who can already wax prophetic on neurodiversity, sensory processing, monotropism, and self-advocacy, because this is all he has ever known. Whose eyes sparkled with wonder and excitement. “Happy ‘Love My Brain Day,'” he said.
And then they baked celebratory “I Love Our Brains” cookies, and lived happily ever after.