Using the Oaklander Model with "Quirky" Children

They ask me if they can take their shoes off. They notice subtle changes in my office, week to week. Even at age 12 or 13, they will bring beloved stuffed animals to therapy sessions. They are often described as “on the autistic spectrum,” or diagnosed with “Aspergers.” They are delightful. The children I am talking about have some typical responses to the Oaklander model. Over the years I have found myself adapting the model to their needs and abilities. In this article I would like to highlight what I have found most useful.

Violet talks about “meeting the child where he/she is.” This is especially important when working with a “quirky” child. (I like the word “quirky.” I find it to be descriptive but not offensive – and in fact, appealing. You may differ, so please substitute your own word if mine is not meaningful to you). These children have difficulty entering our sphere of experience, but are amazingly proficient at sharing theirs. Wherever they are, there I go. They often bring favorite items (usually stuffed animals or collectibles) into therapy, and I always begin with these: who is that? Tell me about him/her/it. What do you like about him/her/it? How are you similar to him/her/it? (This last question can be hard for them to answer, but is worth asking – sometimes I offer suggestions)

Although most “highly sensitive people” are not on the autistic spectrum, most people on the spectrum are “highly sensitive.” This means that their danger response is heightened. What is tolerable to most people is simply not tolerable to them. Imagine that someone gently touching your arm feels as though you were locked in a phone booth in a bathing suit with ants crawling all over you. Not too pleasant. This can create a situation wherein the child shuts down to sensory experience in general.

Violet talks a lot about expanding a child’s sensory awareness, and quirky children benefit greatly from this work. Clay, smelly markers and pencils, music, tactile activities – these can all be worthwhile. Quirky children tend to have definite likes and dislikes in the sensory arena (actually, in most arenas!). Being respectful of this is essential.

Children “on the spectrum” often have significant social skills deficits. Violet talks about the importance of “contact functions” and the “I- Thou” experience as described by Martin Buber. I want the quirky children I work with to see me as a meaningful person in their lives: we share games, art activities, and silliness (what joy it is to discover a quirky child’s funny bone!); I relate events in my life with events in theirs; I attempt eye contact. Often I feel like a sounding board of anonymity with these children, so when “contact” occurs, it is quite special.

Most parents of quirky children are exasperated. Their children are stubborn and prone to tantrums. The parents believe their child is behaving poorly on purpose, and take it personally. It is important to help parents understand how their child navigates the world, and to realize that the long-term prognosis is good: with encouragement and understanding, quirky children tend to get better and better. They figure out how to manage/avoid sensory assaults; they find avenues for their interests, and people who appreciate their gifts. As therapists, we need to help these children graduate high school with hope and the knowledge that they are important – and then I believe they will soar.

I enjoy entering the world of video heroes and stuffed animals and various and sundry inanimate objects. I enjoy listening to a quirky child’s detailed descriptions of the obsession of the moment. I enjoy offering parents the bright side of what has frequently been a discouraging road. I enjoy making contact when it appears contact is not likely to be made. I enjoy quirky children.

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Claire Mercurio, Ph.D.

Claire Mercurio, Ph.D. received her B.A. with High Honors in Psychology from the University of Michigan in 1984 and her Ph.D. in Counseling Psychology from the University of Southern California in 1991. During her internship with Community Counseling Service/Pacific Center she was exposed to Violet's book, "Windows to our Children." Shortly after becoming a licensed psychologist and having her first child, Claire moved to Santa Barbara, where unbeknownst to her (at that time), Violet lived! Claire has a private practice specializing in children and adolescents. She was an adjunct faculty member at Antioch University for six years, and supervised interns at Family Service Agency. She is currently supervising an intern at "New Beginnings." Violet's methods have continuously been the driving force behind what Claire teaches and practices. Claire can be contacted at this email: