“Sometimes I feel that you do not want to be part of the family”, Jennie says, crouching down beside her fourteen year old son David, who is sitting on the floor behind the couch immersed with his Playmobile.
The Shabbos meal has ended and once again he did not wash, did not sit at the table, did not eat with the rest of the family. He’ll eat later, she knows. A bowl of cereal and milk. He’ll eat alone, reading a comic book, and by the time the next meal arrives, he won’t be hungry and once again he won’t participate. Begging and pleading, threatening and cajoling, none of it will work. She can get him to the table, where he’ll sit sullen and silent and irritable. Everything will annoy him – the tinkle of cutlery, the jokes and family banter, someone humming, or shifting in their chair. He will perceive all this as intended to annoy him. Eventually something will happen and he will explode. Like a horse that can be brought to water but not made to drink, David can be coerced to sit at the table, but he won’t really be there with them. Nothing can make him enjoy the experience if he resents being made to participate. He will be counting the minutes until he can get away, back to his corner where the playmobile waits, and he structures the toy world with absolute control.
“Sometimes I feel that I am not part of this family either,” David replies.
The answer is blunt and heart-breaking. David is aware of the emotional distance between himself and the other members of the family. He just doesn’t know how to cross the gulf, and as a result his behaviour is perceived by his family as aloof and angry and uninterested in participating in family interactions, when in reality he doesn’t know how.
Longing, for the purpose of simplicity, is the desire to be involved in an emotional relationships. A person experiences loneliness and longs for companionship and connection. Longing represents the desire to be close to another person, including one’s own family. Belonging, for the purpose of simplicity, is the ability to act on those feelings in such a way that the desired connection is established. A feeling of longing should catalyse a system of behavioural interactions that culminate in an experience of belonging. It is cyclical. Belonging comes with expectations that the relationship will be maintained through appropriate and ongoing behaviours.
For David, sitting alone in the corner playing Playmobile on Shabbos morning, an invitation to join his family at the Shabbos table is not seen as an invitation to participate in a family dynamic that will strengthen his sense of connection, create a feeling of closeness, and alleviate his loneliness. It is experienced as a burden. His inability to recognize the invitation for what it is causes him to act in a way that is experienced by the rest of his family as a rejection. I don’t want to be one of you. I don’t want to be part of you. I don’t want to sit at the table with you, his behaviour says to the other members of his family.
Even when he is actually willing to join his family sitting at the Shabbos table, David remains unable to interpret the relaxed comradery of the family as an invitation to make himself comfortable as well. As a result, the light hearted banter, humming, drumming on the table, and shifting chairs that surrounds him, all cause him to experience irritation and intolerance for the ways others make themselves comfortable. When he expresses his irritation and resentment, he pollutes the atmosphere of warmth and togetherness. His own behaviour makes him unwanted and unwelcome at the table.
David feels lonely, and acts in ways that perpetuate his loneliness. He doesn’t know how to demonstrate his desire for connection and his wish to belong. His mother Jennie is shocked to learn that he feels alone and apart, when he seems to be the one initiating a cycle of continuous rejection. I don’t want to be with you. If you force me to be with you, I’ll make you wish you hadn’t invited me, his behaviour says.
To break this cycle, David needs someone to explain to him how families interact and what to expect from others at the Shabbos table. He needs someone to explain how others experience his behaviour so he has a choice to decide if that is the message he wishes to convey. If he wants to convey a different message, he needs to learn the words and the behaviours to do so. This social and emotional learning that most people absorb unconsciously needs to be taught to David as one teaches a foreign language – each concept defined, explained, and demonstrated. Since David cannot function without rigid patters of interactions, he needs someone to break down social interactions and show him the unspoken rules and assumptions and misunderstandings that happen at each stage. When they do this, it means that. When you do this, it means that.
Without this necessary and critical intervention, David can remain estranged and alone even in his own home, continuously rejecting those who represent his strongest potential for experiencing intimacy and belonging.
Tags: Aspergers, autism spectrum disorder, parenting