The Domino Effect

IMG_1729 See that? That’s my Little Guy being as silly (and ADHD) as ever. Not a dinner goes by without him doing something completely and engagingly out of the ordinary. From running around the kitchen table twenty times to dancing in place on the bench to ceaselessly tapping his spoon on the table, he can’t sit still to save his life—and it bothers his older siblings immensely. You know, the ones who are particularly sensitive to noises, extra activity, and anything out of the ordinary. One or another of them will end up shouting at him at every dinner, but he just keeps on keeping on, happily expending his energy.

That’s the fun of having multiple children on the autism spectrum. Some are ultra-sensitive to their surroundings while others are completely oblivious. That usually leaves Katie and me with the unenviable task of trying to mediate between the two factions. It’s not always easy, as the two most averse to noise and other sensory excitement also tend to be the most emotional ones. So they respond with a level of anger and frustration that far outstrips the gravity of the situation—that is, the gravity that we perceive. For them, their younger brother’s acrobatics are thoughtless, careless assaults on their frayed nerves. But for him, being hyperactive is his default position.

And so begins the Domino Effect. Child Number Six’s hyperactivity sets off Child Number Four’s aversion to the unexpected, then Child Number Four begins yelling at Child Number Six, which sets off Child Number One’s aversion to noise, which causes Child Number Two to cover her ears and yell louder, which causes Parental Unit Number One to try to calm down Child Number Six, which only causes Child Number Six to increase his jumping, which . . . well, you get the idea.

A Wild Rumpus.

I wish there were some way to solve this, but for the moment I’m baffled. We could, I suppose, have dinner in shifts, with two kids at the table at a time. But that can eat up a lot of time. Plus, how will they ever learn if we don’t help them work through this stuff? So we’re left trying our best to keep the little jumping bean from pushing too many buttons while also trying to help the older ones practice self-calming and emotional regulation.

Of course, some days are better than others. There are those times when the Little Guy is more subdued, or the older ones are more forgiving. But then there are the times when all Katie and I can do is raise our wine glasses to each other and smile wearily as the wild rumpus unfolds.

And then there are the worst days: when we unthinkingly rush into the fray and end up fanning the flames instead of extinguishing them. That never ends well. We’re getting better at checking ourselves, but there are times when you just can’t help it—or when safety concerns demand a forceful intervention.

Welcome to the Vortex.

This, I think, is one of the hardest things for ASD parents—keeping calm in the midst of a swirling vortex of emotional outbursts. We love our kids so much that we hate to see them upset. But the one causing the upset is another one of our kids, whom we love just as much and who we know has a hard time sitting still. So we’re torn. Plus, as parents, we want to see our kids get along, or at least be civil to each other. That’s kind of hard when they all see each other as threats to their well-being.

So we try the best we can, dreaming of that magical day when all eight of us will remain at the same dinner table for longer than our average of five minutes. Seriously. It’s not uncommon for them to run out of the kitchen not long after dinner has started. Either they’re giddily chasing each other or they’re desperately trying to get away from the noise or they’re taking advantage of the chaos to sneak back to their video games.

Collateral Blessings.

As challenging and dispiriting as this can be, the Domino Effect does have one positive side effect. After the peeling-off, there’s usually one kid still hanging out at the table, and it’s quite common for a conversation to develop. It’s not much, and it’s not long, but it’s real contact. And in a big family like ours, those moments are important.

It never ceases to surprise me the kinds of topics that come up in these impromptu encounters. From our oldest girl’s questions about two girls in her class who seem a little too affectionate with each other (this is 8th grade) to our nine-year-old telling us about the math teacher who yells at his students, we learn a lot, and we can share a little. Sometimes we laugh together, other times we offer advice, and other times we commiserate. But we always try to listen.

As I said, it’s not a lot. But it’s something, and it’s precious. Even our most sensitive kids are able to hang around for a short time—even if there’s full-on chaos in the next room. When they know they have both their parents’ attention, the other stuff recedes into the background. They know we’re listening. They know we’re on their side. They know we love them. And love always wins.

So keep on jumping and stretching and dancing, Little Guy. You have no idea how much good you’re doing!

Have Yourself an Aspie Little Christmas

Welcome to the Most Wonderful Time of the Year! For the next month or so, front porches will be festooned with twinkling lights. Santa Claus will hold court at the local mall. Candles will glow at the table. Carols will resound at the spinet. And families will gather for feasts that will make all the Whos down in Whoville green with envy.

It’s that last one—the family gathering—that has me a little nervous this year. For the past twelve years, Katie and I were living in Florida while the bulk of our siblings were living in Maryland. But this summer, we moved back up North. Now, more than 32 relatives live within a one-hour radius of our home. Some are as close as the next neighborhood over.

Believe me, I love being back home. I’m so glad my brothers and sisters, as well as most of my in-laws, are nearby. They’re all good people, and we get along really well. But it’s been years since we’ve been part of a major family gathering, and a lot has happened in those intervening years. Mainly, we had a lot of kids who just happen to be on the high-functioning end of the autism spectrum.

If you know anything about autism, you know that people on the spectrum can have a hard time with sensory overload. Noises and crowds can make them shut down or act out. Changes in routine are unsettling. The smells, tastes, and textures of a holiday meal can be overwhelming. Even when they’re surrounded by people they know and love, they’re still surrounded. And that doesn’t always feel good.

All of this got me thinking about how different our family can be—and how different we may appear to people who come to visit. Mind you, most of our relatives are familiar with our dynamic, but there are a few outliers. Not to mention, new friends may end up dropping by. So, with no malice or prejudgment intended, I decided to come up with a few random guidelines for visitors to our home over the holidays.

A Field Guide to the Zanchettin Holiday Home.

  • Please remember that the Hallmark Channel is a mendacious purveyor of myth. No one’s dining room looks like that, and certainly not ours. We’re too busy running to therapy sessions and prepping for IEP meetings to dust every other day. Or every other month. Or ever.
  • No, the mini-trampoline belongs in the hallway, where we can keep an eye on it. And on its users.
  • If you find yourself trapped in a heavily one-sided conversation with one of the kids, remember that nonverbal clues don’t work. Use your words. Find some hook that you can use to change the subject. Unless, of course, you enjoy lengthy discourses about the relative merits of water type Pokémon versus grass types in the Kanto Region.
  • Please try not to make any references to Frozen. Not even oblique references. Don’t even say, “Let it go” in casual conversation.
  • Yeah, he spins around like that sometimes. Or hops. Or planks. He’ll be fine.
  • Don’t be offended if one or more of the kids disappears without notice. It isn’t you; it’s her. She’s probably getting overwhelmed and looking for a quiet place to unwind. Just shrug your shoulders and move on to another child. We’ve got six of them, so there should be plenty to go around.
  • Yes, that probably is the 75th time you’ve heard the theme song for the video game “Five Nights at Freddy’s.” It makes him happy, so we’ve learned to block it out.
  • Don’t be surprised if, when you ask one of the kids what extracurricular activity he’s involved in, he replies, “Therapy.” He’s being honest.
  • Yes, he often sits upside down like that, with his head near the floor and his feet in the air. Or athwart both arms of the chair. Or draped over the back of the sofa. And yes, he’s very comfortable doing it.
  • Yes, I know he’s taking a bath right before dinner. That’s his safe place when things get too noisy. He’ll be out in about an hour.
  • All compliments about our parenting will be graciously accepted by the management. All advice will be graciously ignored.
  • Why yes, I’d love another glass of wine. How did you know?

Aspie on the Verge

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.

No Love from the Lollipop Guild

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Someone’s unhappy. No lollipops at the bank, because Daddy used the ATM tonight. Mommy always uses the drive-up window, and the Little Guy always gets a lollipop. But it was after hours, and the window was closed. The poor guy sitting in the back seat of my car just couldn’t comprehend a world in which The Bank does not equal Lollipop. No matter how many times I explained it to him, it just didn’t load. He knew his routine, and there was no room for variation. The autistic brain thrives on structure and predictability. Unanticipated change is a dangerous thing—especially when that change means no lollipops!

A Stuck Brain.

“Are we going to get a lollipop?”

“Not tonight, Little Guy. I have to go to the ATM.”

“Aren’t you going to the bank?”

“Yes, the ATM is a machine at the bank.”

“Doesn’t the machine give lollipops?”

“No, it doesn’t. If you want a lollipop, you have to go to the window. But that’s closed now.”

“But we going to the bank, and we always get lollipops at the bank.”

“Yes, but we can’t get one tonight.”

“But Mommy always gets lollipops at the bank.”

“That’s because she uses the window. But the window is closed, so we can’t get one.”

“No lollipop? This is so wrong!”

“I’m sorry, Little Guy, but we can’t get one.”

“But aren’t we going to the bank? We always get lollipops at the bank.”

I tried. I really did. I tried changing the subject. But he kept circling back to the lollipop. I tried to turn it into a game, tickling him and telling him that we had a yummy dinner waiting for us at home. Nope. I even took him to the drive-up window so that he could see that no one was there. No dice. No matter what I did, he became more and more anxious.

Plan B.

So I did what any sane man would do. I took him to the drive-through window at pharmacy across the street. They give out lollipops too.

“Hi, I think you have a prescription waiting for me? The name is Z-a-n-c-h-e-t-t-i-n. Nothing? Oh well, I guess my wife already picked it up. Oh, by the way, can you give my boy here a lollipop?” [I’m so clever.]

“Sorry, sir. We’re all out of lollipops.”

$#!† Now I was really in trouble. He started to cry. Big, crocodile tears.

Plan C—Please?

As we headed home, I tried a different distraction. I promised him a couple of mini Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups after dinner. But his language glitch was in high gear. First he thought I was promising him a cup of chocolate.

“No, chocolate and peanut butter. Together.”

“But I don’t like peanut butter. Only Nutella.”

“No, Little Guy. It’s a Reese’s Cup. You remember them, don’t you?”

“Is it chocolate ice cream?”

“No, chocolate and peanut butter. Together. You know—Reese’s cups!”

“Do you have them here?”

“No, they’re at home, waiting for us.”

“Instead of dinner?”

“No, after dinner.”

<Sniff> “Okay” <Sniff> “And a lollipop, right?”

The Comforts of Home.

By this time, we had pulled into the garage. He got out of the car, headed into the kitchen, and ate dinner with the rest of the family. A little disconsolate, but nothing too dramatic. Come dessert time, he had completely forgotten about the Reese’s cups. He was back home, back in his routine, and all was right with the world.

The little stinker!

Not So Fast!

2014 seemed like it was going to be a good year. Our two oldest were enrolled in a private school dedicated to kids on the high-functioning end of the autism spectrum, and they were actually enjoying it. We were, too. Who wouldn’t? There is very little homework, and the teachers are both knowledgeable about ASD and approachable.

Our next two oldest kids were making good strides in the public school, including a very responsive IEP team for our fourth child. And the two youngest were skating along beautifully, showing the world just how much they could learn.

We had taken a relatively incident-free overnight trip to Disney World in January, and in February we took a longer trip to visit my father in Tampa—again, with no real problem. During that trip, we took a side visit to Sarasota that blew me away. The primary purpose was to visit my mother’s grave, but we turned it into an all-day thing, throwing in a lunch at a restaurant downtown. That entailed walking through a crowded arts fair. But again, with no incident. What’s more, at the restaurant, two people told us how beautiful our family was and how well-behaved our children were. I couldn’t have been more proud!

Things were going so well, in fact, that I caught myself wondering whether I was making a mountain out of a molehill with all this autism stuff. Was I just being too dramatic? Was I letting my fears color the way I looked at my kids? Maybe I was turning my anxieties into self-fulfilling prophecies.

Oh, Well . . .

That was a few weeks ago. Since then, we’ve had to deal with . . .

• A huge melt down from one of our private-school kids over a Doctor Seuss celebration the school had been planning. This trivial event brought back embarrassing memories from a similar one seven years prior. “I can’t go to school,” she wailed. “Don’t you remember how I had a migraine in kindergarten during Doctor Seuss Day, and I threw up? I don’t want that to happen again!” It took two hours of helping her work through it before we could get her to school. Ant that was just the beginning. For the entire week afterward, she became so anxious that she began throwing up every day.

• Completely irrational anxiety from our oldest about his upcoming confirmation—all because of a cognitive glitch that left him petrified of our local bishop. Seriously, the guy’s a kindly Cuban gentleman who lives next to the cathedral in St. Augustine. But my boy was convinced that the bishop was going to interrogate him in front of the whole congregation and condemn him to hell for his sins!

• Increasingly angry, sometimes violent, outbursts from our eight-year-old every evening. Once he’s surrounded by the whole family at the dinner table, he becomes jumpy and irritable. Too much stimulus that he can’t control. Too many voices talking. Too many flavors and textures on his plate.

• Our ten-year-old whiz kid fighting tooth and nail instead of doing the bang-up job he was capable of on his STEM project. The melt downs bordered on the epic because Minecraft had to win out.

• Our six-year-old girl collapsing into an emotional heap every time we corrected her for the slightest mishap.

• Our five-year-old boy suddenly becoming unable to sit still for love or money. Unless he’s playing Fruit Ninja on my iPad or watching YouTube videos of Angry Birds on the computer.

No Laurel-Resting.

So yeah, it’s been a trying couple of weeks that left me wondering what the hell happened. Everything was going so well, and then all of a sudden it wasn’t.

All this has shown me something, and I hope I don’t forget it.

Good days come, and you get a break every now and then. Maybe even a longish one lasting a couple of months. But God help you if you ever let down your guard. If you don’t keep working with your kids, if you don’t take advantage of every opportunity to move them forward another step or two, you risk losing more ground than you thought you had gained.

I knew it, but I relearned it: ASD is permanent. It’s also a tricky S.O.B. Just when you think you’ve got it figured out, just when you think your kids have it licked, it comes out of left field and says, “Not so fast, Cowboy!” This is especially true when your kids are high-functioning. They get good at masking what’s going on inside them, until they can’t take anymore. And if you’re not careful, you play along with them.

The Trap of Wishcraft.

It also showed me the power of the imagination. In a sense, I was in denial because there were no immediate crises to deal with. Things were relatively smooth, and I let wishful thinking take over. Rather than pay attention to the signs that some of the kids were beginning to unhinge, I slacked off and enjoyed the rest. And yes, there were signs. Katie saw them and tried to alert me to them. But I didn’t want to look. Instead, I conjured a fantasyland in my mind and tried to make the outside world conform to it.

I don’t think I’m the only parent who does this, by the way. Everyone takes a mental vacation every now and then. But in the case of special-needs parents, the stakes are usually much higher.

So we slid down the mountain a bit. It happens. But that’s okay. I’m back on the watch tower now.