"Does that hat really make you happy?" asked Scowl.
"Yes!" twittered the little bird.
"But what makes you happy, Scowl?" asked the other animals.
Scowl had a little think. "Being grumpy!" he said. "It's great fun!"
"Yippedy-doodah!" they all cried. "So we don't need to do anything to make you happy?"
"Well," said Scowl, "there is one thing that you could all do."
"What is it?" they asked eagerly.
"Flap off!" said Scowl. And they did.
This picture book spoke to me as the wife of someone with Aspergers as I read it to my four-year-old the other night. No prize for guessing who Scowl is in our family!
In the book, Scowl is a grumpy owl whom all the other animals in the wood are trying to make happy. They sing to him, give him a happy hat, try to cuddle him. But through it all, Scowl just gets grumpier. Finally, when Scowl breaks the happy hat, one little bird out-grumps him and stops Scowl in his tracks, leading to the conversation above.
Now I'm not saying that Ethan should be allowed to wallow in his grumpiness all the time and, actually, he's getting better at being cheerful. But, when he is grumpy, what I've learnt is that trying to cajole him out of it, either by false cheer or by being cross with him, generally leads to more grumpiness. My instinct, when he's being miserable, is to criticise. But is it reasonable to expect Ethan, particularly Ethan, to be light and jolly all the time? I know I'm not. And I've not got Aspergers to deal with (well, I have, in a roundabout way but, you know what I mean). I think, subconsciously, because I know Ethan's prone to be a glass half empty kind of a guy, I try to jump on and quash the first sign of grumpiness in a bid to change him. But, for some of the time, I think Ethan might actually need to be grumpy. I think that maybe, being grumpy, or at least not being cheerful, is a kind of recharging process for Ethan. If left alone, he'll come out the other side better for it.
The message of the Scowl story, and one that I need to let take root and grow in me, is to let people be who they are. So, when Ethan wasn't clowning around with the other blokes wearing 80s wigs and striking rocker poses at that party the other week, I shouldn't have felt disappointed. I need to stop trying to squeeze him into my mould and allow him instead to be his unique self.
That said, obviously we all need to make some effort to fit in to society, to be a friend, to be sociable and to make the effort even when we're feeling tired or grumpy, to be patient with the kids and to interact with their constant chatter when actually, we just want to be left alone. And that's the kind of selflessness that Ethan needs to work on. But, what I've learnt from the story of Scowl is that when it's appropriate, when the situation allows it, I should let Ethan be who he is - allow him to sink into his natural state of being for a while without being nagged to stop being miserable or unsociable. Maybe because he does make the effort (and it is a real effort) so much of the time, my job, when Ethan's having a moan, should be to let it flow over me and work its way out. To flap off rather than try to cheer him up, put him down or turn him around!
[Big bad owl, written by Steve Smallman, illustrated by Richard Watson and published by Little tiger]