A few days ago, my husband, Beth, and I pulled up to our house after grocery shopping and I heard the familiar request from Beth in the back seat. “Drive, drive, drive!” she insisted. Hubby unloaded the groceries from the car and I took Beth for a little spin.

Driving in the car with her favorite music blasting is a sensory passion for Beth. She loves to watch objects move by, feel the sensation of driving, and hear the music as it surrounds her inside the car. I recently made Beth a new playlist, and her favorite track is a song called Butterfly by Alex & the Kaleidoscope Band (1), because it has deep, full acoustics. We were driving around the back roads in farmland near our house, listening to the Butterfly song over and over, when Beth exclaimed, “I want to see the butterflies!”

Huh? I had her repeat her statement, and again she exclaimed, “I want to see the butterflies!” She has never asked to see butterflies before. Beth showed mild interest in a couple butterflies outside our house last year, so I went to great lengths to expand on this interest. Last summer I took Beth to butterfly houses at nature centers and showed her butterflies emerging from cocoons in our own butterfly house (http://www.amazon.com/Insect-Lore-Live-Butterfly-Garden/dp/B00000ISC5/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1365436873&sr=8-1&keywords=butterfly+house). Last May I even took her to a butterfly field, shown in the video below, and I caught a few butterflies with a net and released them in the car so that Beth could see them up close (2).

Beth didn’t seem impressed with any of our butterfly adventures. But here we were a few days ago, driving by the field where I took her to see butterflies one time 10 months earlier, and she is insisting, “I want to see butterflies.” And all I could think was, damn, you never know what makes an impact.  That is the wonder and the frustration of autism.

This brings me to a core question that frustrates me on a daily basis. How much do I push Beth to do things that, on the surface, she doesn’t seem to appreciate, given that she can clearly expand her world with such “parent-led” activities?  As much as possible I try to use Floortime, which means I let Beth initiate activities, follow her leads and interests, and use internal motivation to gently guide her up the developmental ladder. It makes sense, because following her lead is the path to least resistance and it is the most respectful way to relate to her, given our completely different neurological make-ups and the communication gap. But sometimes I use more of an applied behavior analysis (ABA) approach, where I initiate the learning task and may even use external motivators to achieve a specific goal. And occasionally, ABA has led to self-initiation of the activity later so that I can do more of a Floortime approach with her to expand the activity even further. Clearly there is a balance in using child-led and parent-led approaches. Applying this idea of balance to the butterfly situation, I took Beth’s mild interest in butterflies and I used parent-led outings to expand her experience with butterflies. It took awhile for her to express her further interest to me (10 months!), but I am so happy she was able to tell me what she was thinking as we were driving by that field.

So, even though Beth would rather just drive in the car and not end up anywhere in particular most of the time, we will be going on nature hikes to expand her world again this spring and summer. Outings are tough for her, especially if the place is not familiar, if there is a lot of walking (she tires easily), or if there is water that she is not allowed to jump into. But, as you can see from these pictures from last year’s nature outings, which are set to Beth’s Butterfly song, I believe it is worth it in the end (3).  I will consider the nature outings an ongoing lesson in adaptation and communication for both of us.


1. You can catch Alex and his band in the Philly/NJ/NJ/NY area.  His music and concert dates are here: http://www.kaleidoscopesongs.com/

2. The road next to the butterfly field had a small shoulder and was very busy, so it wasn’t safe for Beth to exit the car.  I released the butterflies back to the field once we were done observing them.

3. Locations in the photo collection: Evansburg State Park, Peace Valley Park, Morris Arboretum, Tyler Arboretum


4 thoughts on “Butterflies

  1. Erica says:

    So wonderful to be reflecting so carefully on how much to intrude on your daughter’s learning. In my own teaching, I find the Reggio Emilia work on “provocations” a great influence for choosing how to require children to encounter something new, but then giving the right amount of freedom to let them respond. One idea to consider would be “mini” nature hikes: 5 minutes 3 times a day, walk outside, touch a leaf, pick one piece of grass to feed a pet lady bug in the house, or pick a single mint leaf to stir in your water…something brief, routine, purposeful and frequent to increase the chances to expose her to the demands of the outdoors in short digestable little nibbles. If she doens’t like it, it doesn’t violate your home-is-safe principle and it’s very brief. But it could be the quick exposures help her conquer and map out coping so she can more deeply enjoy the other bigger nature experiences. Only a “provocation”…ultimately you clearly know your daughter very well and will know what part of this idea is useful or not.

  2. “How much do I push Beth to do things that, on the surface, she doesn’t seem to appreciate, given that she can clearly expand her world with such “parent-led” activities?”

    WOW – I have had this thought many times in the past. We’re using biomedical treatments that have really unlocked some of the communication I wished my son could do with me (he has always been verbal but has a hard time expressing feelings about things he is interested in.)… I had spent years exposing him to all kinds of things I thought he may be interested in, and would possibly give him a connection to something that he could become passionate about. Suddenly, he started talking to me about different memories/experiences he has had (things that I didn’t even think made an impact), and it was like all those thoughts I wished I could know from him are making their way out.

    For example, my folks used to have a lake-front camp. I would take my son out in the kayak, and he would sit there nested in the space near my knees and just look as I pointed out things along the shore or in the water. He never said much, never asked to go, and never asked to get out of the kayak, either. I thought he was indifferent. A couple months ago, he tells me how much he loves kayaking and can we start doing that again? He tells me about WHAT he liked about it, and the motion he likes, and goes on and on.

    I’m sorry this is so long, but I wanted to share it so it will give you some encouragement to keep on exposing Beth to different things. She may not say much, but she is processing it, I’m sure. I hope this helps. (I really enjoy your blog, BTW!) ~Amanda

    • grahamta says:

      Thanks Amanda…we will just keep on doing new things then, knowing that others are experiencing the same thing. It helps to know that.

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