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.
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!