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Recently we decided to introduce the idea of self-compassion to Rowan in order to help him cope better in times of stress and anxiety.

Self-compassion involves acting the same way towards yourself when you are having a difficult time, fail, or notice something you don’t like about yourself as you would towards a friend or loved one. Rowan is always extremely kind and generous towards other people but often pretty hard on himself. We therefore felt that if we introduced some of the self-compassion exercises that Kristin (Rowan’s mom) developed during her work in this field it might help him in the future. As always though we realized it was important to do this slowly in a non-pressure environment and use humor so that Rowan is intrinsically motivated to listen to what we have to say.

As it so often does a situation soon arose in which we could talk about self-compassion in a context that Rowan would enjoy. Many of you will remember the fireside girls from earlier posts but for those of you that don’t they are a troop of girls called Katie, Addison, Ginger, Gretchen, Hollie, Millie and Isabella from the cartoon Phineas and Ferb. The fireside girls often accompany Rowan on trips and take a very active role in his academics. For example, when Rowan was learning the different swimming strokes the fireside girls helped him by demonstrating them to him (as an aside anyone who trieds to claim that people on the autism spectrum have no imagination need to spend 5 minutes in the company of Scub). Therefore when Rowan told me that the Addison was being attacked by angry birds I immediately jumped on the opportunity to use the fireside girls in another aspect of Rowan’s learning. This was the story that I came up with:

‘Addison is having a lovely day. She is having fun swinging with her friends Gretchen and Isabella and her body is flooded with oxytocin which makes her feel safe, happy and loved. However oxytocin has an arch nemesis called cortisol and cortisol doesn't like seeing Addison feeling happy and relaxed. Therefore cortisol decides to enlist the help of the angry birds to attack Addison. Addison feels anxious and stressed when she is attacked. Oxytocin leaves her and cortisol takes over her body. This causes her heart rate and breathing to increase. However Gretchen and Isabella see what’s happening to their friend and shout to Addison to call her ally oxytocin back. They tell her all she has to do is place her hand over her heart and soothe herself by telling herself she is going to be ok and she is loved. Addison does this and oxytocin returns and kicks cortisol out of her body. Her heart rate and breathing return to normal and she feels happy and safe again.’

Rowan loved this story partly because I told it to him on the trampoline – his favorite place to learn –partly because it involved people and characters that he loves and partly because I told him it in a silly voice. Because of this he asked me to tell him it over and over again so that pretty soon the main concepts in the story had sunk in. Two days later we made up the following story together.

‘Woody belonged to a little boy called Andy. Andy loved Woody very much and was very kind to him. He wrote his name on his shoe and gave him lots of hugs. This made Woody feel good – his body was full of oxytocin and he was happy. However one day Woody got lost. He ended up in the home of Sid. Sid was Andy’s neighbor but he was nothing like Andy. He liked to torture his toys and make them very unhappy. Soon the oxytocin in Andy’s body was replaced by cortisol. However one of Woody’s friends Buzz was worried about his friend and came looking for him. He saw his friend in distress through the window of Sid’s room and knew exactly what to do. He called to Woody to give himself a hug and say kind, soothing words to himself. As soon as Woody did this oxytocin came back and kicked cortisol out of Woody’s body. The oxytocin gave Woody the power to escape from Sid’s house where he felt threatened and anxious and return to Andy’s house where he felt safe and loved. ‘

The next day Rowan decided to rename his geese cortisol goose (the mean one) and oxytocin goose (the nice one). He told our volunteers that they needed to give cortisol goose a hug every day and that then he would become nice again.

As you can see by introducing the concepts of oxytocin, cortisol and the fact that hugs make you feel better to Rowan in a no pressure way using humor he soon took these concepts on board and was able to apply them to other situations. This is the essence of Horse Boy Learning.