The Incident with the Peanut Butter: Our First Try at Competent Roles

Emmy*, my six year old, was hungry. Emmy is also autistic with pathological demand avoidance: Even the most innocuous question or request can send her poor little nervous system into fight or flight mode. Between that and her language delay, everyday tasks can be…difficult, to say the least. But where there’s a will, there’s a way, and I was determined to do everything I could to have Emmy function as independently as possible. To that end, we started a journey of co-regulation, reading Linda K. Murphy’s two excellent books: The Co-Regulation Handbook and The Declarative Language Handbook.**

“I want snack,” Emmy declared. She didn’t know it, but it was the first day of our intentional, co-regulatory trial week and I had cleared my schedule, waiting to seize every opportunity to provide her with competent roles in which she could participate more in our daily life. Here was a moment.

“The peanut butter is on the floor of the pantry closet,” I told her, “if you bring it to me I can make you some snack.” I patted myself on the back for excellent form. Clear observation of where the peanut butter was, no direct demand placed upon her, just an invitation to participate with me. Declarative language at its finest.

Emmy’s eyes flicked towards the pantry closet then back at me. “No,” she responded flatly.

I did a quick mental inventory. She knows what peanut butter is, she says it all the time. She knows what the pantry closet is, she loves to hide in it (and announce she is hiding in it). She knows the floor. But maybe all three of those things together are too confusing to decipher? It is definitely feasible she doesn’t know the peanut butter lives on the floor of the pantry closet. I’m pretty sure she knows she can pick it up. I went into the pantry closet and pointed directly down to the peanut butter.

“The peanut butter is right here. If you put it on the counter while I’m getting the apples out I can make your snack quicker.” Again, I patted myself on the back. Clarifying where the peanut butter was and why her participation was necessary and beneficial to both of us without using a demand or command.

“Noooo…” she drawed out longer this time.

My eager-to-please child saw her time to shine. “I can get it for you, mommy!” Bee* yelled from her bedroom, running in to save the day. I had to act fast.

“Bee, thank you so much! You have been such a great helper today, I was hoping Emmy could have a turn to be a great helper, too. Maybe you could hand the peanut butter to Emmy, and Emmy could hand it to me!” I said, backing behind the kitchen island again to let my brilliant solution play itself out. Bee loved the assembly line idea and seized the peanut butter, marching purposefully towards her sister.

“No, no, NO!” Emmy protested, shrinking back step by step as her sister approached her. This clearly wasn’t working.

“If Emmy doesn’t want to right now she doesn’t have to, Bee, you can bring it straight to me!” Bee course-corrected and I praised her efforts accordingly while Emmy scowled at us. But I was not going to make this snack without a little effort from Emmy. The key was not to push, though.

I stood and waited to see what Emmy would do. She was clearly weighing her options, too.

“Mommy, where is Gold?” she asked, Gold being her newest teddy bear who was, you guessed it, gold-colored.

“Hmmm…I think I saw him on your bed.” I said…and waited.

She turned and made her way into her room like molasses in January. I watched as she dragged herself up to the top bunk, and before she even took a cursory glance moaned out forlornly, “I don’t see him.”

“I can help you look,” I said, and came to the side of the bed. I lifted up a few of the top-layer stuffed animals. “Maybe he’s under these guys.”

“Nooo….” she whined. He wasn’t, I was looking, too, but I wanted her to confirm the fact.

“Well, let’s check under these guys…”

We excavated the bed in that manner for a few rounds. No Gold. Emmy wanted to continue the search, but didn’t seem to know what steps to take next, so I suggested a course of action.

“If Gold isn’t in here, the next place I would look is the big bed.” AKA, Mommy’s bedroom. Emmy stood in the doorway with me behind her. I counted to thirty behind her while she fooled with the hinge, making sure she had ample time to process what I said and formulate an answer. Nothing was forthcoming. “I can’t get out if you are standing in the doorway,” I reminded her, “if you lead the way we can look together.”

Emmy took a half-step to the side. Okay, time to make this partnership a little tighter to help her along. “I’m going to come with you,” I said, and held out my hand, smiling gently. Surprisingly, she took it and we walked together to the bedroom.

“I don’t see him.” She stated immediately upon entering.

“Well, there’s a lot of places he could be. Let’s check under the bed first. You can lift up the bed-skirt and I can look under or I can lift up the bed-skirt and you can look under.” We’re in this together, little girl. She dithered. She huffed. I sat down on the floor next to the bed and waited. She flopped down and threw up the bed-skirt for half a second. I waited. She lifted it up forcefully again but held it longer this time, and I looked.

“Nope, he’s not under here. Let’s check behind the pillows. I can lift them out of the way and you can peek or you can lift them out of the way and I can peek.” Get used to this, honey, I thought, because this is the new pattern of partnership.

Emmy slumped all the way to the floor, “No…..” she whined again. Yesterday, I would have been getting frustrated by now. But today…this was the whole plan for the day. I had nothing but time and I wasn’t the one hungry for snack.

You see, many kids, but especially those with neurodivergent traits like autism or ADHD, can struggle with both executive planning and motor planning. Emmy knew she wanted a snack, but she had no clue how to start the process, so she deflected to searching for a toy to try and avoid an unfamiliar situation. Now, whether or not a neurotypical six year old is fully capable of making themselves apple slices with peanut butter depends upon the child, but most kids this age should be capable of getting the required materials, as long as they are within reach. Bee, Emmy’s younger sister, knew immediately what to do when I asked for the peanut butter. My job with Emmy is to help her learn these tasks that come naturally to Bee. One aspect of coregulation is breaking down tasks into achievable steps, even if those steps seem ridiculously small to us. For Emmy, that meant starting by putting the peanut butter on the counter. We were going to get it done, I was determined.

I sat down calmly on the bed. “That’s okay. It looks like you need a little break. When you’re ready to start looking again, I’ll be here and ready to help you.”

Emmy frowned, so I knew she heard me — and didn’t like what she heard. She messed with her fidget spinner. I sat drinking my tea. She sat up and spun the fidget spinner again. And again. And again, and lowered it slowly to the floor. It tapped rapidly against the wood and she giggled. I giggled, too. She did it again and we both giggled. I sat down next to her on the floor.

“Would you tickle my hand with it?” I asked, hazarding a direct question since she seemed like she was in a slightly better mood. I held out my hand and smiled questioningly at her. Emmy obligingly let the spinning fidget spinner trace over my palm. I giggled. She giggled.

“I wonder what it would sound like if you put it on the door.” She looked at the door, spun the fidget spinner, and tapped it to the door.

“Whoa, that’s loud! It sounds like a drum!” I said. She giggled again.

We tap the fidget spinner to things she can reach for a while, and soon she’s smiling. Eventually she says, “I’m hungry.”

“Let’s make some snack, then,” I suggested, “the peanut butter is on the table. You can put it on the counter for me and I’ll get the apples.” Division of labor, we’re both doing equal tasks, together at the same time. I stood up and waited for Emmy to follow suit. She cast about, deciding if she wanted to comply. Her eyes landed upon Rover, her little red stuffed dog.

ROVER will do it!” she declared, stood up with Rover in hand, and marched into the kitchen.

And Rover does do it. With Emmy’s help, Rover got that peanut butter from the pantry floor and put it on the counter while I got the apples.

“Thank you, Rover,” I said, and go about making snack like we didn’t just spend thirty minutes avoiding moving the peanut butter six feet.

The apples are ready and I’m getting out the cold cuts. “Hey Rover,” I say, “this peanut butter is ready to go back into the pantry closet.”

Emmy glares at me. I smile at her. She glares at Rover, like he’s committed the ultimate betrayal. But after a moment, she gathers him up, gets the peanut butter, and puts it in the pantry without another word, sigh, or stomp. I’d say that’s a win. A win for both of us.

*names have been changed

**products are linked through an Amazon Affiliate link but are not paid promotions.

Declarative Language and Co-Regulation are a work in progress in our house. We have a long way to go, and Emmy still resists most new challenges, but I am happy to report that she regularly gets out items for snack time, helps measure ingredients and stir pancake batter, and even has an evening clean-up routine that is almost automatic now. If you want to follow more of our journey, follow me on Instagram. Early access to articles, as well as exclusive access to early childhood educational materials (with a focus on autism) are available by joining my Patreon.

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Annie Newman

Annie Newman

Two kids, one NT and one Autistic. On a learning and therapy journey that is constantly evolving.