Can Emotion Be Taught???
Can you teach someone to feel?
Is it a “Heart-Felt Smile” or are we just “Showing Teeth”?
“Smile Sweetie…please smile…” I would plead to my little boy, before his Granny would come for a visit. The result was always the same…a very stiff showing of teeth, not a real smile, and nothing about it was emotional in any way. It was just something that he had to do, whenever he saw his grandmother. It was kind of like Pavlov’s Dog…with my little boy…”I see Granny’s Face — I Smile”. And, I taught him well because he remembered every time…yes…the stiff showing of teeth, a very robotic gesture indeed.
I would marvel at the difference in the reunion, as I watched my younger child, who is not on the Autism Spectrum; react when his Granny came for a visit. “Granny!” The shout was gleeful, like pure Happiness had filled the air…and his face…his face held the most heartfelt and emotionally charged smile that spread to his entire body, as it flowed from it’s emotional center. I never had to teach him this display…he just knew it, and came by his emotional gestures, and social graces very naturally. For most of us, this does not need to be taught.
Deep remorse over what my little boy could not feel, or experience depressed me deeply. Our greatest gift as human beings is emotion, and it is also the greatest tragedy in that, for many on the Autism Spectrum, this emotional aspect of their lives is missing, diminished, or inappropriate in some way. In much of the therapy that we would try…there would be at its core…a reward system. If you smile…you can play with that toy. If you say “Thank You”, I’ll give you a cookie.
My little boy loved rewards, and he was quite good at completing whatever tasks were required in order to receive it. And so…He would “Smile”…and he would get to play with the toy. And…He would say, “Thank You”…and he would get the cookie. And…I guess that I should have been happy with that…after all he was responding to the “Social Graces” of
Society, right???…well maybe…It’s just that, while he said the right words, and made the right gestures…he didn’t…“Feel It”… and it never hit his emotional center…at least from all outward appearances. He couldn’t mirror the faces of the people that loved him and would smile at him, and just long for him to smile back.
I desperately wanted so much more for my little boy, than just to be able to respond robotically to social situations. I wanted to somehow find something or someone who could reach the emotional center of his little brain…so that he would be able to “experience” emotion. I wanted him to “feel” the smile, the hug, the emotion.
And now the emotion is here! When I put down his plate of supper in front of him, he looks up at me, straight into my eyes, and with a warm smile, he says, “Thank you, Mommy”…and, I didn’t have to promise a toy…When I give him a smile, and a thumbs – up…he knows what that means, and he gives me a smile…and real one…and a thumbs – up right back.
Best of all…are the times that Granny comes over…Wow!!! I can’ t believe my eyes, as this child, that would formally, stand back, smile stiffly (because that was what he was supposed to do), and say “Hi, Granny” in a rather monotone voice….THIS SAME CHILD…runs to the door, and embraces his grandmother with the most loving emotion that rivals even his little brother. And I watch this reunion through the bleary eyes of tears that overwhelm me with a tremendous sense of happiness and joy.
We are not just “Showing Teeth” anymore…