Operation Brown Bear–looking beneath the surface to understand Rachel’s thinking.

by Jennifer Dyer

The adventure begins…

Rachel’s been talking about teddy bears lately. She will point to her iPad and show us a picture, usually a screen shot, of a bear. Her favorite is Dora’s teddy bear.

So, for her birthday we thought it would be fun to take her to Build a Bear to make her own bear friend.

The trip to the mall went well. We ventured there on a Monday evening where it would not be crowded and left time for her usual elevator ride and carousel spin.

Eldest stayed a few feet ahead and pretended not to know us in true preteen fashion, and we had to make a few trips to the bathroom, but otherwise no fire alarms went off and no one stripped naked.

When we got to Build a Bear, Rachel was fascinated by the stuffing machine. She couldn’t focus on picking a single bear, or maybe she didn’t understand what we wanted her to do. But she was certain of one thing: she wanted to watch that stuffing.

Sadly, money doesn’t flow as easily as the stuffing in their machines, so we helped her choose one.

She loved the machine’s whirr and grinned while the downy white stuffing circled inside the glass case. She laughed and hooted with joy.

We talked about names. She signed “brown” and “bear,” so we christened our new friend Brown Bear and pointed Rachel to the bear clothes. But she wasn’t interested. She wanted to do the stuffing process again.

Warning bells went off in my head. She really liked that stuffing…

Uh…oh…

That night Rachel hugged Brown Bear tight and kept him close, so I went downstairs with warm thoughts about her new best friend. It wasn’t until the next night that I realized…

Build a Bear, we have a problem…

I couldn’t find Brown Bear in Rachel’s room, so I went to the guest room where she likes to hide things. I would lock that room if I could, but unfortunately, one of her therapy swings is installed in that doorway, so open, the room is, Master Yoda.

And I found Brown Bear…all over the room.

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And that’s when I made a huge mistake…

I, shall we say, lost my own stuffing. “Rachel, what happened to Brown Bear?” I carried his empty shell to her room like a lawyer to a witness on the stand. “What did you do to him?”

Rachel isn’t able to express herself verbally and the nuances of expressing and reading emotions are still difficult for her, but I could tell I’d embarrassed her.

Rachel grabbed Brown Bear’s shell and shoved him under a blanket.
I, being on planet Not-Tuned-to-Rachel,pulled him out and showed him to her. “Rachel, why’d you do this?”Rachel sat on him. Get the hint, Mom, and drop it.I went downstairs, shoulders slumped. Not only had she destroyed the bear, there was another huge mess to clean. I had just spent an entire weekend cleaning that room with her. Now it looked like a Build a Bear blizzard had blown through. It wasn’t fair! Me, me, me…

The next day when I gathered Brown Bear’s scattered innards to re-stuff the poor guy, I stopped in the doorway. Half my hair went gray. Since Someone had made such a blooming deal out of the unstuffed bear, Rachel had decided she needed to cover up the mess. I had embarrassed her, so she was recovering the best way she knew how…with the contents of the linen closet and a giant mound of shredded tissue paper.

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The lesson?

I failed to take the extra moment to think through Rachel’s actions. Sometimes understanding Rachel is like mining for gold in the dark. It’s not easy, but always worthwhile. She’s complex with a vast intelligence kept under the surface by this blanket of autism.

So, why’d she do it? In this case, she loved the stuffing and wanted to experience that fun moment again. Instead of chastising and shaming her, I should have helped her re-stuff the guy without the verbal fussing.
Then I could have told her to leave the stuffing inside and sewn him up. I missed the opportunity to lead by example, instead choosing to yap my big mouth.

With autism it seems so much is about making every moment a teaching opportunity. Every action of mine models an action for Rachel. Each overreaction is a lost opportunity to connect with her. And, sadly, I often lose sight of the fact that it’s more of a marathon than a sprint with her. She needs repetition, consistency, and calm, assertive leadership.

The key? I think Dora says it best: “Stop and Think.”

P.S. I’m happy to report Brown Bear was admitted to the ICU at Grandma General and has almost completed his rehab. He should be back in action with reinforced seams this week.

Bear hugs, friends. May you keep your stuffing where it belongs.
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8 thoughts on “Operation Brown Bear–looking beneath the surface to understand Rachel’s thinking.

  1. An insightful look at a tough situation. So many times I scold instead of digging deep. A good reminder for all of us. Thankfully my boys are very good at forgiving me…and praying for me. “Dear God, please help Momma not to be so grumpy.” Argh, there are pros and cons to them being verbal ya know.

  2. You do such a great job of describing the mistakes we make as parents. With Rachel it happens more often because of her autism. You will be a saint by the time you are through her trials. Remember that hindsight is always 20/20.
    Nurse Tristan was a great help in re-stuffing Brown Bear with his smaller hands (a whole bag of stuffing). Brown Bear was really hungry. Hopefully the stitching on the machine will keep little hands from plucking the threads out of his back.

  3. Oh my, let’s hope she doesn’t come to realize that all her stuffed animals are full of stuffing! I think you need to cut yourself some slack for your initial reaction. You are a mom and there was a mess – not to mention an expensive bear in shreds. Give yourself some credit for the fact that you did, eventually, think through her motivation for doing what she did. It’s a good lesson for all of us moms. How often do we scold without ever asking the question, why?

  4. Your mom’s following a family tradition- I don’t know how many times Grandma Platner stitched up Brown Spots for me…who I still have…thanks for the memory! Just had a thought- stuffed heart Valentines (recycle all that shredded tisuue paper?!)

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