In what way can we say that we know another person? When your child cannot speak you mostly go on observation and intuition. But these are so intrinsically tied to our own belief system that it is easy to see how our assumptions about what we think we are seeing can lead us to the wrong conclusions about why someone is acting a certain way.
If you love a kid like my Oliver, one with "High Octane" autism (a term coined by Leo's mom), you might find that, more than the average kid, yours does things that you don't understand, things that are destructive, dangerous or harmful and no amount of explaining or consequences or replacement strategies or tears or even raging in frustration can get your kid to stop. Instead, you might come to believe as I did, that aside from your best efforts to keep your kid safe, you might really have no choice but to examine your own way of thinking about these challenges.
When we talk about the challenges of autistic people and their
"behaviors" we might think of them in one of two ways. Either: "He
just wants to do it. He knows he's not allowed. I've told him a million
times not to do it. But he finds a way to do it anyway and just doesn't
care that he is causing damage." Or, we might say: "I just don't think
he understands how much damage he causes when he does that." So the
person is either uncaring or unintelligent. But maybe there is a third, more respectful, way to think about it. And having arrived at this third way of thinking in my own personal parenting journey, I can also advise that it is incredibly helpful to read the words of autistic people and then try to integrate their
experiences with what we see happening in our own house.
I say all this knowing full well that the most common thinking in autism circles is that an autistic person's actions are considered "behaviors" (I word I don't use in relation to my own guy because of it's negative connotation) and that these can be "shaped." And here's where I always felt like such an enormous failure. Because I read all the parenting books. I read the Dr. Sears Discipline book. I read 1,2,3 Magic. I read behavorist manuals. I searched the internet, read blogs and talked to friends. And if some of those strategies were successful with your child, you're lucky. Only rarely did any of it work for us and then in a very limited fashion. Because if Oliver really wanted to do something there was just no way I could get him to stop in a way that allowed us both to retain our individual rights and emotional health.
Eventually I grew tired of the battle lines, frustration and negativity. Maybe that sounds like I just gave up, but really I see it as giving in. I allowed myself to give in to a much more expansive and active love than I ever practiced before.
At the end of the day, the only thing that really worked was to believe that Oliver wanted to do the right thing but wasn't yet able. To love him, to not take his actions personally, to forgive him for the destruction or hurt, to understand that this was just part of his internal daily struggle. What worked was to express myself lovingly, to not shame him or feel guilty that I wasn't doing a better job and then to move on. Messes can be cleaned up. Material things can be replaced. Feelings can be mended. But self-esteem once it is damaged takes a long, long time to heal.
Despite Oliver's brilliant new ability to express himself and the incredible intellect revealed through his words, we still struggle with many of the same things that occupied us before our boy learned to type. This post from 2008, aside from the particulars, could have been written today. Though today I might find it simplistic to tell someone who is struggling to just make the right choice. Especially if I put that logic into the context of things that I struggle with on a daily basis. Anyone who has tried to stick to a diet understands.
Last week we found ourselves having one of those kinds of days. It was the kind of day that makes it difficult to practice the kind of love I'm talking about. It was the kind of day where, if you told me to "just make the right choice," parenting-wise, I would have laughed at you. Or hit you. Or invited you to shut the hell up. I was struggling, you see.
The next day, Oliver wrote this (published here with his permission):
When I do things I'm not supposed to I know it makes you feel sad because you think I don't care about you. But I really can't stop myself from doing those things. It makes me feel so hopeless and frustrated with myself. When
I feel sorry my body and face might not show it and I can’t tell you but I really
wish I had not done what I shouldn’t have. I
know I should be able to behave myself
now that I am older. I will keep trying not to do those things. When you find
you want to be sad don’t forget that I really love you. And know that I am trying really hard.
Our kids need us to believe in their goodness even when faced with sometimes spectacularly trying circumstances. I know this is hard. Really, really hard. But let these words be a reminder that we can never know another person's struggles. If your child can't tell you why he did that thing that you've told him not to do a million times, remember Oliver's words and trust that your child would say the same if he could. And when you just don't know what to think or do anymore, giving in to love is always a good choice.