Finding ‘the space between’

By Alive & Well

Dr Viktor E. Frankl, psychiatrist and author of the book Man’s Search For Meaning (1946), said…

Photographer: Annette PehrssonBetween stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.

His thinking was informed by philosophers like Nietzsche, Goethe and Socrates. He was passionate about interpreting and applying their wisdom to modern psychiatry. Then he was sent to one of Hitler’s concentration camps during WWII – that passion helped him survive.

It is those choices, in the space between, that form the basis of how we help our autistic son. We have always chosen to believe he is bright, capable and able to connect and grow. We have learnt to believe his ‘difficult’ behaviours are actually useful indicators of what’s going on for him and how we can help. And so he – and our Son-Rise training – has prised open the space we have between stimulus and response, giving us much more room to move. We now recognise the many chances we have every day to make choices about how we help him and our whole family. To feel unflappable and joyous in the face of a challenge. To feel relaxed when things aren’t ‘going our way.’ To be present in the moment, rather than fretting about the future.

Don’t get me wrong. I am still capable of doing stress. But I know I don’t have to. That I can make a choice. These days I do it less and less, because I prefer to feel happy, inspired and grounded. Grateful, unhurried and thoughtful.

Son-Rise was developed by Bears and Samahria Kaufman in the 70s after their son Raun was diagnosed with severe Autism. They were told there was no hope for him, that his future lay in an institution. But they took that prognosis and decided to shelve it. To believe something else. To give their son the chance to connect and thrive, by adopting and enjoying his ‘strange’ behaviours (such as spinning a plate on the floor) as a way of showing their love for him. In doing so, they formed a strong bond with him in his world, motivating him to reach out to them at a time when he was pretty much closed off.

There’s more to that story of course, but in the end, Raun recovered. He went on to mainstream schooling, an Ivy League university and a successful professional life. He is now Director of Global Education at the Autism Treatment Center of America, travelling the world talking at conferences and training others in the Son-Rise techniques. He’s really grateful his parents chose to believe in him! And I am too, because their experience is the gift that keeps on giving.

Connecting across decades, oceans and cultures

Today I received an email from Sumiko Tanaka. Sumiko was a young mother in post-WWII Japan when her son Minoru was diagnosed with ‘developmental challenges’ – what we now know as Autism. The family didn’t have much money, Japan was still in the grip of food rationing, and there was very little information about how to help their son. But with every challenge her son faced, they found a way to make improvements. They used supplements to close some of the gaps in his health. They worked on his physical fitness every day. They dealt with unsupportive teachers and disapproving parents of other children, while ensuring he remained in mainstream schooling to give his obvious intelligence a chance to grow. Like Raun, Minoru went on to advanced studies at prestigious universities and enjoyed a long, successful career in meteorology.

Sumiko has since published a book called My Life with Minoru, and its message is not “life was so hard for us.” It is overwhelmingly about gratitude. Therein lies the decision she made in the very small space that she had.

I was deeply moved by their story and felt a strong connection through the decades with this gentle, determined lady. So I wrote to her and thanked her. She is well into her 80s now, mostly bed-bound with myeloma, but she told me that:

Minoru retired at the designated age of 60 last year, but he keeps his interest on meteorology research in his office in our home.  He will present a paper on his research findings at an upcoming conference in May. He also helps [me and my husband] with meals, shopping and washing. He loves gardening, swimming and jogging every day. He looks always very happy.

Sumiko still worries about Minoru, but like all of us, her challenge is to decide when, where and how to use that insight.

Practice helps prise the space open

Even when it doesn’t feel like you have a choice, when it feels like your reactions are automatic, the reality is that you do. Practice makes it easier to find the space. And goodness knows there are plenty of opportunities in daily life to practice! So start small…

  • When the paper in the cashier’s machine runs out and needs to be changed just as it is your turn to pay, there’s space there to choose patience – the holdup will probably be less than a minute
  • Or explaining to your loved one that you would prefer a different TV show, rather than getting passive aggressive about it
  • Or when you take a deep, grounding breath and decide to be interested when your autistic son tells you the same story for the 30th time that afternoon, or your ‘neurotypical’ child lashes out at you.

Each time we make a choice to feel calm and joyful, we stack the ‘wellness’ odds in our favour.

“If you destroy, you will be destroyed. If you nurture, you will be nurtured.” Someone said that. Do you know who? I wish I could remember. How do you help make choices that foster your wellbeing?