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Bypassing Dreaded Experiences

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Do you dread going certain places with your child? If so, why not try something different . . . ?

At Brain Highways, we encourage parents to “anticipate, pre-empt, and enjoy” when it comes to their kids.

In other words, Brain Highways parents no longer blindly throw their kids into situations that they predict are going to end up disastrous. Instead, they’re now proactive by first anticipating how they think their child might act and then by doing something ahead of time that circumvents that situation from ever going “south.” In short, after anticipating and pre-empting, everyone can now enjoy . . . whatever.

It turns out that role-playing is an effective “pre-emptive” tool, especially if the lower centers of the brain are underdeveloped. Why’s that?

Well, if the pons is underdeveloped, we’re still wired to go into a fight-or-flight response whenever the brain perceives a threat.  But here’s the problem. The brain is not very adept at discerning what’s real and what’s not. So, someone with an underdeveloped pons may interpret anything new as threatening, which then triggers that fight-or-flight response.

And that’s where role-play can really help. Time and time again, Brain Highways families experience the value and importance of role-playing specific situations before they actually happen.

Why is this so effective?  Well, this is where the brain’s inability to differentiate between what’s real and not works in our favor. The mere act of role-playing lays down neural networks. So later, when the actual situation happens, the brain already has some familiarity with it—which then greatly decreases that fight-or-flight trigger from something new and unknown.

Recently, JetBlue Airways offered parents and their children with autism an opportunity to participate in an event that could be considered one step beyond general role-playing.  They set up practice runs where these families actually went through the entire airline process—including boarding the plane and being taxied around the tarmac for 20 minutes before returning. Amazing!

However, not all of the families capitalized on this experience as much as they might have.  For example, one parent was quoted as saying, “”I’m really glad we had this experience because I know he’s not quite ready for the real thing yet.”

Yet, a Brain Highways perspective would not have automatically jumped to that conclusion. Rather, we would ponder what else we might practice to “prepare” the child, especially since the experience now gave us specific information in terms of what to anticipate.  Or some parents said that the fellow passengers and workers were too nice—that these people are often not so supportive during real travel. Then why not include those variables during this hands-on role-playing?

The parents could have additionally role-played many times (at home) a simulation of what was going to happen once at the airport, which then would have increased the chances of the practice run going even more smoothly for the child.

Of course, there are never guarantees when it comes to kids—and that is true for all kids, not just those with autism.  And yes, plane rides are especially challenging because once in the air, there really is no way to just leave.

But here, too, we can anticipate what we may not be able to control and, therefore, still have a ready-to-go plan.  For example, I used to travel on business flights with my eldest when she was a baby, when I’d have to fly somewhere for the day to do a presentation. As part of those contracts, whoever was hiring me would agree that I could bring my baby, as well as someone else to watch her while I was actually at the conference or workshop.  That way, I wouldn’t be gone from my daughter for the entire day and evening.

Well, I gotta tell you. Stink-eye takes on a whole new meaning when you enter a passenger cabin with a small baby, and it’s filled with business professionals who are intending to work during the entire flight.

Since I fully anticipated that reaction, what did I do?  Well, I was proactive. As soon as I was seated, I’d turn to everyone in my vicinity and share that I, too, really hoped my baby was going to be quiet the entire flight—and that’s how she usually was. But if she did start to cry, I’d be more than happy to buy anyone around me a drink to offset that stress.

And then I’d get smiles instead of stink-eyes.

So no, we don’t have to enter situations with dread and conviction that it’s going to be awful, no matter what.  Rather, we can use our cortex to “see the bigger picture” and then plan accordingly.

And just having that kind of mindset already increases the odds that we do circumvent what we would have otherwise dreaded.  That’s because a positive perspective gives a very different subconscious message than one that expects the worst.

Actually, that statement might be worth reading twice  . . . since it applies to so, so many areas of our life.

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