Of Broken Boundaries, Good Intentions, and Poor Execution

High Voltage

Get off of me!

Not exactly the words you want to hear from your son as you try to put your arm around his shoulder. But there it was. An angry rebuke. A frustrated plea. An unfiltered, visceral response.

I should have known better. We had been having a “spirited discussion” about school. He had asked if he could stay home. He hadn’t slept for the past two nights, so he was feeling pretty bad. I noticed that he didn’t feel so bad that he couldn’t sustain a conversation with his parents, so he wasn’t too badly off. I wanted him to go in because, well, it’s school. Also because he was set to give an oral report in one of his classes as part of a group project. I didn’t want him leaving his team mates in the lurch. But it didn’t seem to register how his absence might affect other people’s grades. Such is the mind-blindness that many people on the autism spectrum display.

It didn’t help, either, that our “spirited discussion” was taking place just as my daughter’s anxiety was ramping up. We usually leave the house at 6:51 every morning. On the dot. Per her demands. But it was nearing 6:55, and she was getting upset. In a desperate voice, she interrupted our discussion and told me to just let it go. Repeatedly. Her increasingly anguished interjections were only raising the stakes. I had to get her into school right away, but I also had to keep working with my son. I was making progress with him, but it was getting harder to compete with his sister. My blood pressure started to climb.

Just then, Katie intervened—thank God! “You go ahead with the girl,” she said. “I’ll keep working with this guy.” I didn’t really want to do that, because she had the other four kids to take care of as well. But she seemed confident that she could handle it.

A Broken Boundary.

That’s when it happened. Without thinking, without assessing the situation, without remembering who I was dealing with, I did a stupid thing. Out of instinct and wanting to leave on a positive note, I reached out and put my hand on my boy’s shoulder. It was a gesture of reassurance that everything was going to be okay and that I wasn’t mad at him. It was meant as a signal that we were still friends and that I felt bad that he was so tired.

It was the worst thing I could have done. In addition to the mind-blindness, this boy also has sensory issues. He doesn’t like being touched—especially when he’s not expecting it. When someone tries to make physical contact with him, he tenses up and reacts angrily. Usually it’s just a brusque motion to disengage, with a quick, “Stop!” uttered almost under his breath. But today was different. He was tired and he was in a tense situation.

“Get off of me!” he yelled and jerked away. Immediately, I knew I had broken one of his boundaries, and I felt bad. When am I ever going to get this right? But I didn’t have time for self-recrimination. I knew that I couldn’t let him yell at his dad. So removing my hand, I gave him a look that said, “Come on, son, it isn’t so bad.” I was hoping to give him a moment to cool off. Only it didn’t work. He locked eyes with me and glared. Hard. Defiantly. Almost menacingly. I had never seen that look in him before, and it was unsettling.

“Daaaaad! We have to go!” My daughter’s plaintive voice broke the tension. So I left him with Katie, but not saying, “This isn’t over.”

“That Was Your Father.”

On the one hand, I get it. The kid can’t stand being touched, and here I was reaching out unexpectedly, and in the middle of a tense encounter. My intentions were good, but my execution was bad.

But on the other hand, I couldn’t let him off the hook for things like this. He is turning into a young man. He needs to learn what is appropriate and what is not. He needs to take responsibility for his actions. And for heaven’s sake, he can never use his ASD as an excuse.

Katie, good sport that she is, told him all of this. “That was your father, not some kid in class. I want to hear a real apology from you when he gets home.” (Have I said lately how much I love my wife?) I did end up getting the apology, along with a lengthier conversation about what had gone wrong in the morning. It was somewhat gratifying, but I’m not confident that I won’t have to deal with this again.

Because adulthood is coming, whether he likes it or not, and I need him to be ready for it.

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