I have found that using analogies is an effective strategy for helping kids improve self-awareness and self-control, providing emotional validation, and enhancing communication with adults and peers. These strategies are effective for kids who are on the autism spectrum, twice exceptional, and learning disabled. With every analogy, a visual component is one of the most important features. No artistic skill is needed, just paper and marker. The goal of these analogies is to provide a common vocabulary and benchmark for current and future discussions of difficult topics. Five of my favorites are listed below.
1. Climbing a mountain
This picture often describes the plight of learning disabled kids who see a mountain of work, skills to master, and effort ahead of them. The mountain is also an apt analogy for kids with social issues; they may feel that everyone else has already reached the top while they are stuck at the bottom. For each kid, I adjust the slope of the mountain to reflect both where they are with regard to specific skills and how that part of the mountain “feels.” I always include an encouraging view of how far they have come and emphasize that they are closer to a resting place or the summit than they realize.
This analogy is reserved for kids at the edge of a crisis or debriefing after a melt-down. I communicate that their actions or feelings could or have had a snowballing effect (and even the unhappiest kid usually smiles when I draw them as a flattened stick figure under a giant ball). I suggest to kids that they can stop the process of rolling downhill, especially if they stop sooner rather than later. On the other hand, kids who are flattened at the bottom can see that this is not the end of the world. Snowballs do not destroy that little stick figure, even if it looks pitiful at the bottom. No, I never mention avalanches.
I’ve referred to this analogy in a post on understanding reading difficulties. The ladder picture can be used to compare two sets of skills, with one ladder depicting the rungs that have yet to be climbed while the other ladder indicates strengths in another skill. For instance, in social skills, one ladder might depict a kid’s weakness in maintaining conversations while the other ladder indicates his strength in playing sports with other kids. The ladder analogy is useful in helping kids see that learning is a series of steps, not pole vaulting. This image can reduce anxiety while demonstrating that the process can feel fairly natural. Most kids are pleased to see that they are high on a ladder of success; some will even ask how many steps it will take to get to the same height on the parallel ladder.
This is a dramatic analogy that captures the intensity and struggle of managing strong angry feelings. (I do not mix metaphors for these angry kids, so we are not going to see pictures of snowballs anywhere.) First, I normalize the volcanic experience by referencing the real world. There is a layer of magma everywhere under the earth’s crust, meaning that we all have the capacity to blow up if the pressure is too great. The “volcanic” kid is responding to pressure, so questions include “How high is your magma (or scientifically incorrect, hot lava) right now?” and “What caused the volcano to erupt?” Effective use of a volcano picture identifies triggers, self-awareness, and incorporates ways to cool down when the pressure is great. Angry kids are often scared of their feelings and scared about the reaction of others. I have seen kids erupt but recover when they realize that they are going to survive, that we can capture the distress on paper, and that all is not lost.
This is one of my favorite analogies because it is easily understood by kids and accurately depicts what happens to them when tasks at school leave them drained. The battery can represent mental or social energy, emotional reserves, ability to focus, and other typically depleted internal resources. While a battery can be drained, it can also be recharged. As with the other analogies, there is a sense of empowerment when kids learn what drains them and how to re-energize. As brain research tells us, the emotional levels of stress do not automatically disappear when a kid has left the stressful situation. The battery analogy can help with this problem, too. Kids may be confused by their inability to put school “behind them.” They may be as shocked as their parents by acting out behavior or other responses to long-term stress. The battery analogy can prompt conversations about the benefits of certain activities, such as sports, music, art, and games which serve to recharge a depleted kid. Kids may become better at self-advocacy when they can identify battery “killers.” This analogy can validate their sense of depletion. The battery analogy is also normalizing; instead of regarding themselves as weak or incompetent, they can identify specific activities that are especially draining for them, just as other kids are drained by different tasks.