The Illusion of Choice

by Helene Louise  

If you ask a child if they want to watch television, go to the park or have some chocolate, they’re very likely to express immediate enthusiasm. If you ask a child if they want to do their homework, they’ll generally be a lot less enthusiastic. And, if you ask a child who is facing any kind of physical rehabilitation to do a particular exercise, the response is not likely to be enthusiastic at all and it might even be a flat-out refusal. 

The exercises my daughter has had to do as part of her physical rehabilitation, for example, have been frustrating and tedious. Trying to stretch fingers that have never been extended, or use a hand that just “doesn’t want to listen” as my daughter used to say, is very difficult and often, even painful. Still, the only way for her to overcome the effects of the stroke she suffered is for her to work at it. As much as we want to give our children everything we can, the outcome of physical rehabilitation is not something we can give them directly, or do for them—it’s something we can only facilitate.

What I have found particularly helpful, is what I call the “illusion of choice”. For example, I might say to my daughter, “How about we do some exercises and then you can watch TV for a while?” to which she is likely to reply, “No, I just want to watch TV.” So then I might say, “No, but how about I’ll help you with your exercises while you’re watching TV so that we can get them done really fast,” to which she might answer, “OK, maybe...but only if I get to watch for an extra long time.” At that point, I’d say something like, “Hmmm, I don’t know...well...OK,” knowing that the longer she is distracted by the television, the longer I have to work in some exercises with her. And, because she feels like she has participated in the decision-making process, she is much more likely to be cooperative.

You can call it encouragement, being strategic, creative thinking or manipulation. I like to call it the “illusion of choice” and I’ve found it to be very effective in facilitating my daughter’s progress.

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Chocolate, Rats and Open-mindedness

by Helene Louise  

Some things, I know for sure—or at least, I think I know for sure. I don't just think I like chocolate, I know for sure that I like chocolate. What's not to like? And, I know what I definitely don't like. I don't like rats. Just the thought of them gives me the shivers. But, is it possible that even though I like to believe that I am open-minded, that I have been too quick to judge—even the things I think I know for sure? 

I certainly like to believe that I am open-minded. For example, even though I was told many times over many years that because of the stroke my daughter suffered as a baby, there were many things she’d never be able to do, I kept an open mind and worked hard to help her anyway. As a result, she has exceeded all expectations.

I came across a reference to a study that shows, strangely enough, that even though most of us think that rats are disgusting and only concerned with their own survival, they have actually proven to exhibit something that we associate with humans—compassion.  In the study, a rat was restrained in a small cage while another rat was free to roam around his captive compatriot with a pile of chocolate chips nearby that only the free rat could access. What researchers found, was that rather than immediately starting to eat the chocolate, the free rats chose to persevere until they had found a way to liberate the captive rat, regardless of how long it took, all the while ignoring the chocolate. 

So basically, as inherently unpleasant as I find rats to be, it would appear that even if they are given the opportunity to keep a big pile of chocolate to themselves, if one of their own is in distress nearby, they will choose to help their fellow rat before eating anything at all. That’s definitely not what I would have expected.

I still know, for sure, that I like chocolate and I'm still pretty sure that I'm always going to find rats unpleasant. But, maybe there is still scope to be more open-minded—even about the things that I think I know for sure.

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The Importance of Jumping on One Foot - Part II

by Helene Louise  

As I wrote in Part I, in the early days of my daughter's rehabilitation, her inability to jump while standing on her right leg was identified as an "incapacity" that needed to be worked on. But as time went on, despite trying hard to help her with that, it was something I eventually replaced with other objectives. Safely getting to the top of a play structure, for example, playing soccer or riding a scooter. 

A few summers later, however, I was walking along the sidewalk as my daughter skipped happily in front of me. At a certain point, I realized that she wasn't skipping in her usual lop-sided way. She was, in fact, skipping using both legs equally!! "Hey, you're skipping with both legs!!", I called out to her. She spun around and with a big smile said, "Yeah, and I can skip backwards too," at which point she started skipping backwards making up a song as she went along about how she could skip backwards. I asked her when she had learned to do that and she answered, "I don't know, I just did."

It appears, that somewhere, in the period between when I was actively trying to help her learn to jump on one foot so many years ago and that moment, she had learned to do the very thing that I had long since given up on. And, it wasn’t because she had been doing targeted exercises or secretly practicing in her room when I wasn't watching. Probably, it was just that by always being active, knowing it was OK to do things differently, having a strong sense of self and knowing how to persevere, her physical abilities continued to evolve, even as I had let go of certain objectives.

When I looked really closely, I could see that there was a slight difference in how she skipped on her right leg as compared to left one. But then again, who’s really going to look that closely to see how equivalent the jumps are on each foot, and how often do we even jump on one foot? Regardless, seeing such unexpected  progress in this case was another "tiny triumph" that I quietly celebrated as I walked along behind my daughter, as she sang, “I can skip backwards, ya, ya, ya...”

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The Importance of Jumping on One Foot - Part I

by Helene Louise  

One of the many "inabilities" that was pointed out in the early years of my daughter's rehabilitation, was the fact that she could not stand on her right leg and jump on one foot. Year after year, it was checked and year after year it was pointed out that she couldn't do it. 

At the time, I was painfully aware of what other kids her age could and were supposed to do—especially since her assessments continuously focused on the abilities that the stroke had taken away as opposed to what was, or might, be possible. So, learning to jump on her right foot was one of the many things that I worked on with her. At the park, in her room, in front of the TV, I held her as I encouraged her to lift her left foot off the ground and try to balance on her right leg. 

But, try as she might, it was very difficult for her to even just stand on her right leg, let alone try to jump. And, the muscles in her foot and leg were so tight that she couldn't easily bend them. So, being able to then bend, balance and jump, did seem impossible. Balancing alone remained a major challenge let alone ever achieving any kind of lift-off. Still, for a long time, I tried just the same. I figured that if I didn't try, then she certainly would never learn to do it and if I did, then at least there was a slight possibility of it happening. 

As she got older and the other little girls in the neighbourhood skipped along on the sidewalk as young girls like to do, my daughter would skip too. But she skipped on the left leg only and then took a step with the right one. It was lop-sided but it didn't matter. She was with her friends, she was happy, she felt good about herself and she was skipping in her own way. 

As a result, I eventually abandoned the project of overcoming that particular "inability". In part, because with time, I gained a little more perspective. Really, aside from maybe mimicking Fred Flintstone stubbing his toe and yelling, "yaba-daba-daiai-aiai" as I sometimes did when I was a child back in the seventies, or trying to hold a pose while playing Twister in someone's "rec room" as we called it back then, how many times have I actually jumped on one foot in my lifetime?  And, of those instances, how many times was it absolutely necessary that I jump on one foot as opposed to moving in some other way? I can’t think of a single instance. 

So, perhaps my daughter was assessed as incapable of jumping on her right foot. But, she is capable of a great number of things, including skipping, even if it is a bit different. And, she is capable of making friends and enjoying a summer day—which is even more important. 

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Happ-e New Year!

by Helene Louise  

It's the beginning of a new year and I'm not much for making new year's resolutions but I do always like to have a goal or two on the go. For me, there is an important difference between the two.

With new year's resolutions, there is an implied 365-day implementation deadline after which you reflect on the success or failure of whatever it was you intended to do. Goals on the other hand, don't have to fit neatly into a one-year period and therefore, can legitimately extend over a longer period of time than whatever was expected at the outset. 

I believe this is a very important difference because in this way, any progress, no matter how minimal it may seem to others, can still be counted as a step towards achieving the goal, even after a year, or more. In my case, this is much more likely to keep me from abandoning whatever goal I've set for myself, which of course makes it much more likely that I will actually ever achieve it!

This project, Micha Books, is a good example. At first, it was a vague dream I had of doing something positive with my experience coming to terms with my daughter's stroke, beyond her own progress. Slowly, the idea became a long series of small goals spread out over many years - an outline for a book that I felt I could write, learning how to use a specific software to format what I eventually wrote, learning how to build a website and then slowly building one, writing and developing a children's book, etc. The only resolution I've had really, is in the broader sense of the word. That is, a resolve to keep working on something that is meaningful to me. And that's what I do, from one year to the next.

So, as we start this new year I don't have a resolution, but among my more practical goals, is to figure out how to turn my books into e-books. Hopefully, it will take less than a year to do but even if it takes longer, I will still be "happ-e" with the outcome - whenever that is.

I wish everyone a happy (and happ-e!) new year full of goals of all shapes and sizes, to be achieved, all in good time.

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