I snapped sometime last week. I hoped it was just hormonal flux that was the cause of my sniping at, stomping around, and screaming in the vicinity of my kids last week, but the calendar said no. For weeks, my younger son had been losing it more and more, defying my directions and suggestions, griping at his brother and I, throwing progressively longer and more frequent tantrums, and otherwise unnerving the household.
It’s not that any of that behavior is new. I’ve been caught in the vortex of his downward spiral before, sucked into despair and anger as he swirls in a storm that doesn’t seem to abate for long enough for me to step into sunlight and hope for a better tomorrow. I’ve walked on eggshells many times before, as has his brother. It’s just that every time my younger climbs out of one of those seemingly endless tempests, I like to pretend that it won’t happen again.
But it always does.
And it sucks every time. Sucks joy out of the house, hope out of my heart, life out of his brother’s eyes. All around, it just sucks.
His recent pattern has been increasing refusal to do anything directed by another. Homeschooling is, to say the least, difficult when he wants to whatever he wants to do whenever he wants to do it (and unschooling isn’t the answer, for many reasons). Parenting is several shades worse. Meals, grooming, errands, karate class, and chores are all potential minefields. As I’ve done before during these sieges, I pare down my expectations and plan very little. The result is sometimes a bare cupboard, a missed trip to the bank, or less than stellar attendance to karate class. The fewer requests I make, the less he can refuse. Of course, this doesn’t help us get the tasks of life done. And it’s not fair to his brother or to me. It’s just what happens.
Collateral damage also includes a rather shaken mom who sleeps less, yells intermittently, and cries often. Not that tears have any effect on my younger. He just doesn’t “get” crying (unless he does it). When I’m caught up in one of these seemingly endless seasons, I can start to think of him as a psychopath, heartless and cruel, despite knowing it’s just a brain difference gone awry.
By last Thursday, I was ready to run away, sell him to gypsies (or pay them to take him), or start with the wine at breakfast. All were ideas with unpleasant consequences, so instead, I lost it at his therapist’s appointment.
“So how’s it going?” asked Dr. L to my son.
“Fine. I’m doing well.” he replies, while reaching into the couch to feel for the plastic rod that holds the couch cover on. He checks for that every time we come.
Dr. L caught my eye roll. She checks for it, and I’ve developed a roll rivaling any teenager. While usually there’s no one around actually looking at my eyes to see them roll, on Thursdays, my rolls are seen and acknowledged. For my son’s benefit, I add my verbal dissent.
He seems surprised. Insert another eye roll. We’ve been working on a token economy trading school work compliance for “kittens” (small pictures of kittens, not the real item), which can be traded for time on his favorite computer game, Minecraft. Minecraft should carry a warning similar to that on Oxycodone and tobacco. It’s wickedly addictive for my more neurotypical son. It’s crack and heroin together for my Aspie child. He’ll work to get his fix.
Except he wasn’t really doing that well. Per agreement with Dr. L, w\he’d started the earning a week before the spending, meaning he had a few hours of kittens stored up when we began the actual program. By our appointment, he was scraping by, earning 15 to 30 minutes a day, and being highly noncompliant with the rest of life. Tantruming was increasing. Parental sanity was in rapid decline.
“Your mom doesn’t seem to think it’s going well,” says Dr. L. “Why do you think she thinks that?”
I can’t recall his response, but it was hardly insightful or remorseful. In a span of ten minutes, I moved from politely explaining my concerns to putting my face in my hands while tensely delineating my stress and expectations, to tears.
He never noticed any of those signs of distress.
He never does.
Gently, Dr. L asked him to look at me. He glanced over at me while continuing his tirade. Why should he listen to me? Didn’t I understand his brain worked differently? This could take years, he exclaimed, while I announced through hot, angry tears that I couldn’t last years.
Dr. L asked him why I was crying. “She just wants to get her way,” he said, his voice laced with scorn and dismissal.
The next 10 minutes or so are a blur. She gently refuted his assertion that my tears were manipulative and explained, gently but firmly, that parents have their breaking points and it was time for him to actively work on his compliance. Back and forth they went, with my interjections becoming calmer as my tears and her understanding of both of us brought me back to my ground.
For the last half of our time, we hammered out the start of a more extensive “kitten system”. We’ve used a token economy with him before, and he thrived on it. It’s a pain in the rear to administrate, and he quickly becomes a master at making the system work for him, so it requires frequent tweaking of the value of desired behaviors (compliance to requests, sitting at the table, etc) and rewards (computer time, primarily). But, as Dr. L pointed out, he just doesn’t get the warm fuzzies neurotypicals do from external praise or a happier mom. He needs something tangible, or, as he puts it, “something that’s for me.” The kitten system does that.
We touched upon a bigger problem. He really doesn’t recognize distress in others. Or joy, sorrow, concern, anger, or most other feelings. As Dr. L told him, this is a problem, since emotions are the glue that hold relationships together. Understanding the feelings of others and responding appropriately is a must to social living. I know he feels anger, joy, distress, sorrow, concern and much more. He just can’t see it in others. But he’ll have to learn.
Those are hard skills to learn. Anything that most of the population does on instinct that one instead must do by intellect alone stresses the system and can be exhausting. Reading the shifting landscape of a face and body one knows well (like mom’s) is hard enough. Manage that with others you don’t know, with words flying around quickly at the same time? That seems near impossible.
But that’s our road. This week, thanks to those little pictures of kittens and positive vibes he gets from receiving them (due to their promise to buy him access to his obsessions), we’re all in a better place. He’s pushed through some harder tasks, even making it to karate today without even a whine or whimper, much less a tantrum. That’s progress.
It’s not perfect. It’s not even close. But I’m feeling more whole, and I can again sense the earth beneath my feet rather than those darn eggs that kept breaking despite my tender steps. Even his brother seems a bit more relaxed. I’ll take the respite from the storms enjoying it while it lasts, concentrating on teaching him some better coping mechanisms while perhaps giving him some tools to decode the feelings of others. The winds will blow again, however. They always do. But for now, we’re living on kittens and hope.