So here I am, sitting in our local Music and Arts store, typing away on my iPad while my son spends the next thirty minutes in heaven. He knows we’re not going to buy him an electric guitar until he gets a lot better at his acoustic, but he still likes to come here to try out the electrics and to dream.
The thing is, by most calculations, he shouldn’t be here at all. He was rude to his mother. He was verbally abusive to his little brother and sister. And he hung up the phone on me this afternoon when I told him I didn’t want him playing a particularly violent online computer game. He didn’t come up from the basement for dinner, and he gave us some serious lip when we told him that he had to clear the table after he finally did eat.
So why am I giving in to his request? Why am I not withholding this highly desired activity as a consequence for his negative behavior?
Because the rudeness isn’t the whole story. In addition to being obstreperous, he was also jittery, depressed, and anxious. Even the dog, whom he always loves, gave him the heebie-jeebies. Just one whine from her, and he clenched his fists, hunched his shoulders, and covered his ears. “Roxie!” he barked back, “Stop it!” When his little sister turned on the TV just a little too loud, he jerked his head back, winced, and yelled at her. His eyes were red-rimmed and darted back and forth. His breathing was shallow. He paced back and forth around the kitchen, his muscles betraying the tension of a hunted animal waiting for the arrow to pierce him through. I knew that if I didn’t get him out of the house, he’d explode. And that’s never pretty.
I sometimes wonder if I’m just enabling his bad behavior when I do this. After all, it’s possible that he’s manipulating Katie and me. But this isn’t a nightly pattern. There are many evenings when he’s generally okay, evenings when he participates in dinner, does his chores without complaining, and shows at least a little bit of tolerance for his younger siblings. There are also plenty of times when he doesn’t get his way, whether he likes it or not. But still, every time this happens, I wonder if I’m being a bad parent.
I don’t know if I’ll ever get used to this. When your kid is on the autism spectrum, you have to be ready all the time for God only knows what. You never know what’s going to set him off. Maybe he had a tough day at school. Maybe one class was a little too rowdy, and it set him on edge. Maybe a classmate said something mean, and he kept it in, letting it fester, or maybe it was an innocent, joking comment that he misinterpreted. Maybe he was overly tired from staying up too late (which he does on occasion but rarely admits to). Maybe it was nothing special at all. Maybe the ordinary challenges of living in the world have finally gotten to him. Of course, we know some of the things that definitely will set him off, but there are so many unpredictables in everyday life that just about anything could trigger a melt down.
Fast Reset, Slow Reset.
By the time we were ready to go to the store, I was pretty much done. I had been home for a little more than an hour, but that was enough, after a long workday, to wear me thin. This kid’s aspie-on-the-verge shtick had drained me of what little reserves I had left. It was all I could do not to unload on him when he asked me to take him to the store. “Keep it together,” I told myself. “He didn’t mean half of what he said. Just give him this time to reset himself, and it’ll be okay.”
Sure enough, the reset began as soon as we got in the car. Away from the noise and triggers of the house, his mood shifted, and he became the chatty, relatively chipper kid he often is. I, on the other hand, was still rattled from trying to keep the peace at home. I never stop marveling at how quickly our kids can shed their symptoms, oblivious to the effects they had on the people around them. It’s just another example of the social challenges they face–not really “getting” the feelings of other people. So there he was, chatting up a storm, while I was trying mightily to cool down!
So now I’ve got a half-hour to regroup. That’s how much time I’ve given him at the store. I hope it’s enough. For both of us.