Join Dr. Sheely as she discusses the value of a child’s sense of self; what is missing in autism, how developing a sense of self relates to the parent/child relationship and what we can do to help our children develop a greater sense of self.
Dr. Rachelle Sheely: I’ve been interested in this subject for quite a while now. My interest in it came about probably maybe even 30 years ago when I was working with a little boy and I videotaped him and I said to him, “Who is that?” He didn’t know. He didn’t know and I didn’t know. I literally didn’t know what to do. I had never run into anybody who was that age, 11, 12, 10, 11, 12 who didn’t recognize himself on video. You know that your 19 month old recognizes herself on video.
Kat Lee: Yes.
Dr. Rachelle Sheely: I began to think about why would somebody not recognize himself? Then I began to accumulate more information. For example, what’s your favorite food? I don’t know. Do you have a favorite color? I don’t know. What does your dad like to do for fun? I don’t know. There was this whole area of observation that was not occurring and I had never thought about it because I was so worried about the social relationships and even the guiding relationship that I hadn’t thought about it very much. Then I was reading, I was reading a book by a speech pathologist. I actually cannot remember her name right now. She was saying that one of the reasons children with autism have trouble talking has to do of course, what we know, with communication.
Dr. Rachelle Sheely: They also don’t see the world first through the eyes of their parents. Because they don’t see the world first through the eyes of their parents, they had this idiosyncratic way of looking at the world, which means that it’s not flexible and it’s not resilient. They only see it through their own eyes, and because the world is so incredibly confusing for all of us, and even you can imagine a baby that they tend to focus on things that are static and stay the same. That was kind of my introduction into this sense of self and what it means to have a sense of self. That’s where my own evolution to trying to understand this and trying to make it happen began.
Kat Lee: Well, I love the way you bring the parents into the sense of self because it all goes back to that infant child relationship with their parents when they’re infants, when they’re babies, that little relationship then starts. They’re seeing them through their parents’ eyes and developing their sense of self. It’s interesting because as you said with your example of not recognizing himself, it’s almost hard for any of us to imagine that. We could practically remember being interested in pictures of ourselves and things like that as we developed as children. You see like mirror, like being in a mirror, you see babies discover themselves and knowing it’s themselves, that beautiful time. You have to think that that remains undeveloped even up to 10. How long would it be not developed if not for an intervention?
Dr. Rachelle Sheely: I think that it happens sooner than we think it happens. I know that I have been watching my granddaughter now. Any chance to talk about my granddaughter.
Kat Lee: Of course.
Dr. Rachelle Sheely: She’s not quite six months and yet I can see when something is unfamiliar. She will look at me to make sure that I think it’s okay. If I smile reassuring, I’m not talking about if she hurts her knee and falls over, scrapes herself or something like that. I’m talking about something that appears that is confusing for her. When that happens then she will look at me and if I give her an indication non-verbally – she doesn’t know any words yet, that it’s okay, she’s okay. That seeing the world through my eyes and understanding that referencing is I can look at you and determine the safety of a situation based on what you see. Even some indicators of joint attention. This place where she’s looking at it, she’s smiling, she’s looking at me and she’s making sure that I’m looking at it. Certainly not as sophisticated as a much older child would do, but it does leave me to believe that very, very early on children do begin to process the world through our eyes and they do that before they form the sense of self.
Kat Lee: I think that is incredibly important and incredibly important to think about it as a process. It’s not something that you rigidly teach in a moment. It’s interesting because sometimes people realize what’s missing piece for the children, they want to teach it. Everything you are describing is about a process that’s happening with your granddaughter. It’s gradual. It’s taking place over time, as it must for it to really be what it’s supposed to be to her.
Dr. Rachelle Sheely: That ability to ascertain one’s own safety and then to see if you’re enjoying something or to notice something funny that happens and to laugh at it, those things really are the basis for a lot of other really important things that happen. The things that I think are important has to do with value and what are the values that we hold? What are the character traits that we think are important? I know we talked to our children about these things and we train our children to have good manners and that kind of thing, but there’s this other almost hard to define sense of who am I as a person? What are the values that are important to me that my children are simply picking up on? I believe that that starts happening very young too. Yeah, I’ll share with you, you’ll share with me and how we begin to do those. The other day I was noticing a dad, he had a baby in the carrier and another little girl who was six at the most, seven and altogether five children. He was by himself.
Dr. Rachelle Sheely: He was walking out my office door. He’s got all of these kids. He’s like shuffling up the door. He looked at the three and a half year old boy and he said, “Hold the door for the lady, son.” The little boy did. He stood there and he held the door and he waited until I was out. Now, it’s probably not something that some of us would think of doing, but what struck me was here was a man who could have been overwhelmed with the number of children he was moving somewhere by himself.
Kat Lee: I was feeling overwhelmed listening.
Dr. Rachelle Sheely: Yeah, too, and yet he’s making sure that his son understood good manners, was equally important to him so he was taking the time to do that. We do that with our children often in very unconscious ways and I believe that having this sense of self and you know, “I am proud of myself when I share something.” “My mommy is proud of me when I share something.” Those values get embedded into who we are and we take the time to do that. Maybe not always consciously, but we do take the time to do it. I think that then that forms the basis for our ability because we have that sense of self. Our ability to have compassion for others and to care about others and to see ourselves as people who do something if someone is hurting.
Kat Lee: It’s amazing how those important moments lead to that place. Seems like a little moment, doesn’t it? But it’s a big little moment.
Dr. Rachelle Sheely: You know, Katherine, we wouldn’t even be talking about this if we weren’t talking about autism because we take for granted that children have a sense of themselves. They look in the mirror, they know who they are, they see themselves on video tape and they start smiling. They say do it again, but in autism, things don’t go the way they’re supposed to. If we don’t get that guiding relationship in place in the way it’s supposed to be in place, the children may learn to do things, but the compassion, the sense of self, knowing their own preferences, knowing the preferences of others, it doesn’t just happen.
Kat Lee: Just thinking about those things, that we all without force, it just happens. I’m always amazed when we talk about these things that just seem so much a part of who we are. Seeing little things, knowing what my favorite food is, knowing what my favorite pizza is, whatever it may be, just is for me and that for the children and adults it is not. How hard that has to be? I always think about how we’ve talked so many times about these are not other, these are human beings. It’s nice that there’s not a desire there to have a sense of understanding of self, but if you don’t have it, it’s just like a vacant part of you. We could just as well call the segment you in terms of knowing that person yourself. I liked one thing that you said that really I was thinking about that dad with the five children, and I was just thinking about that parallel process again of parental understanding of self. My as a mom or my grand mom. Understanding, knowing myself and having self to self and then how that impacts my child. We’re right back to what you talk about so much is the parallel process.
Dr. Rachelle Sheely: The parallel process, and I know that as consultants who deal with parents, who help parents establish the guiding relationship with their children, that it’s consultants who do this. We want to make sure that the parents see themselves as competent people who are really equipped to raise this child because I feel like autism not only raise it, not only it creates problems with children having a sense of self, but it also shakes up the parents’ confidence in their own sense of self as a parent who can guide a child who has a neurological difference.
Kat Lee: A beautiful topic and I know we all hear more on this as I think it’s a … I think the topic of self to self is not evolving because the self is any different, but I think as we’re studying younger children and seeing how early this comes in and how key it is to everything else, we’re going to see more and more how it’s key for our children.
Dr. Rachelle Sheely: It’s always good talking to you.
Kat Lee: You too.