G. was seven years old when he was brought to me. By then he already had spent a year in various institutions. He was unruly at school, and even at home his parents were at wits end. He broke things and caused pain to the ones around him. The diagnose was autism and ADHD. His behaviour wasn’t only bothering people around him; it made him at least as desperate. He said he often thought that it was better for him to be dead.
The only thing that filled him with enthusiasm was technology. That’s why his parents called
on me: can you learn him to forge. This was right on the spot: from the beginning he was fascinated by the fire and the objects he could make. It was an intensive training. After three months he said: “Finally I have something to live for”.
I accompanied him for one and a half year. Then he got back to school and even at home there has been much improvement. He still has a lot of energy and is easier out of balance than other children. But there has been much less escalation. He is proud that he is able to make the objects he envisions. And he can better ask for help when it starts to get to him.
My forge is three things in one for youth and adults with AD(H)D and autism: a place where they can fit in, a place where they can develop themselves ànd a place where they can build up their self-confidence. I have discovered that the traditional craft of blacksmithing is ideal for this, for various reasons.
The fire, hot iron, the possibility to make your own sword, shield or hammer; they have a natural appeal to many people with AD(H)D and autism. This enthusiasm helps participants to get over the threshold and start to get serious in the workshop.
When the participants start to get busy, the forging process asks for a constant focus. Attention and precision are directly rewarded with a beautiful work piece. At the same time they can’t get completely lost in the moment. A good blacksmith always looks forward. Actions need to be preformed in a certain sequence, and often ask for preparation. In addition the work goes better when you do it together.
The participants also experience that they get the best results when they’re open to serendipity. This way they get challenged to find the balance between planning and flexibility; a combination that can be difficult for people with AD(H)D or autism.
By practicing difficult skills in the forge, the participants can learn to manage and reduce the problems they and those around them struggle with. But the process of blacksmithing also brings various leads to learn to regulate feelings. And in practice that proves to be crucial as well.
Many of my clients have an excellent antenna for emotions. They only find it difficult to deal with that. As a first step I learn them to put these emotions into words, to get their inner world into contact with the outside world. A smirk becomes: “I don’t like this”. Standing alone in a corner becomes: “Can you help me?”
The second step is to categorise and analyze their inner world. What do you experience and what could be the cause of that? Most children feel over-excited because of over-stimulation, and start to act stressed to bring their behavior in line with their experience. “I feel hyperactive and act hyperactive, so that’s right!”
When they start to see this, there is space for the third step: to change interaction with the outside world. Instead of running around over-excited, you can deliberate with your coaches to change the activity in a way it gives off less sensory overload. When you feel unheard, you can start talking louder, but you can also get the attention by raising your finger, or touch someone for a short moment.
I developed the way I accompany these youths in practice. A great part of my inspiration is the way I had to go myself. As a child I was always regarded as being (too) curious, (too) energetic, (too) less motivated and not social enough. In those times children didn’t weren’t labeled as easily. And because my school results were fine, there was no need to dig deeper into the things that bothered me, like rapid speech, panic attacks and a low self-esteem. In hindsight it was caused by hypersensitivity: sounds, visions, feelings, atmospheres, all came in too fierce.
I learned to counter that vulnerability in a natural way; form an early age I had a fascination for human behavior. I didn’t turn myself off from the world, but started to categorise and analyze what could be the case. This way I got a better sense of my surroundings and myself especially.
These interests and experiences didn’t only bring me to the path to study psychology. They made that I still feel a strong kinship to my clients. Because I stand with one foot in their situation and with the other in the ‘normal’ society, I can make a bridge between those two worlds.
To me it isn’t the goal that people with AD(H)D and/or autism start to be ‘normal’. It’s that everyone can find their own spot in society. A place where you feel well and your abilities can flourish. In any case, I wouldn’t like to be anyone else. Only because of who and what I am and experienced what I have experienced, I am able to do what I do now.
Taru van den Born was trained as a psychologist ànd blacksmith. In his forge he gives children and adults with AD(H)D and autism a place to develop themselves.
This article was first published in Dutch AHDH lifestyle magazine ‘Suzan!‘ of October 2015.
Text: Taru van den Born
Photography: Suzanne Moedt