Monday, October 08, 2007

Party Poopers

We're all party poopers at our house. In the most literal sense. I debated a bit about posting on this subject because even though I share a lot of our world, some of it will always, has to, remain private. And also because I hope that by sharing a bit of our world it will, in some small way, influence how others think about people with autism. And the poop thing? Well, yes, it's there for many of us. But is that really what I want to say about autism? About Oliver? In the scheme of things it just isn't that important. Except while you are going through it. Then, if you let it, it can become all-important.

We've been working on the toileting thing since Oliver was three with moderate success. I mean, for over two years now Oliver has known what to do but would not -- WOULD NOT -- do it independently. Then, this past summer, he suddenly would not even do what needed to be done when prompted. Some might have concluded that we'd had a "regression" -- but knowing Oliver, I figured out pretty quickly that it was something else entirely and I was, for awhile helpless, as a dynamic of struggle emerged between the two of us that eventually organized most of our day. That was mistake #1. The struggle, in turn, made life rather stressful for all of us and toileting suddenly found it's way to the top of the priority list. Mistake #2.

At the height of the toilet war I realized that Oliver and I were locked in a battle of wills. I knew it and he knew it and since we are from the same stubborn stock we found it impossible to extricate ourselves. Indeed, the hardest part was realizing that I had to be the adult in the situation; realizing that I had to yield. I try very hard to find ways throughout the day to give Oliver control over whatever makes sense -- to let him be independent as much as possible. But my first impulse is to make choices for him and to prompt him to do what I want him to do. It's wrong. I know it and yet too often find myself on auto-pilot. And so it was that Oliver made his stand over the toilet. After all, it is the one thing in life that he pretty much totally controls.

And so I set out to change things between us, to eliminate the struggle for control. And it worked. The first day. I told Oliver that it was up to him. He could use the toilet. Or not. Either one was OK with me. And I could only say that after truly convincing myself that it was so. And for a set period of time each day I planned to just concentrate on playing together within close proximity to the bathroom. I promised myself that I wasn't going to try to get anything from him. No pushing for language or to take turns or even for him to interact with me. I was just going to spend time with him and try to have fun. I was going to enjoy myself. And a remarkable thing happened: We enjoyed ourselves together. We spent some time running our fingers across the carpet and watching how the fibers moved. I was tired and lazy so after a minute or so it became strangely meditative. Then we moved to the bathtub and I didn't say "No" when Oliver splashed some water at me. Instead I looked surprised and said: "I'm all wet!" And do you know what Oliver did? He came over, peered at my face and said:"You're all wet!" Then gleefully repeated it a few times until I was more than a little wet, each time saying those same beautiful words that came of his own volition. That alone was worth the price.

Sometime during all this I was aware that Oliver was in the process of making a decision. A few times he looked at or went close to the toilet, then slammed the lid down and turned away. But eventually, he just worked it all out for himself and, well, it all worked out.

That was about ten days ago and, although Oliver still needs me to encourage him to use the toilet, we haven't had a problem since. I adjusted my attitude, Oliver adjusted his response and together we are finding our way down this bumpy path. But what I find so instructive about this whole experience was that it secured for me the understanding that so much of what Oliver can do, or does, is wrapped up in his relationship with the people who are most important in his world. It isn't just about the autism. It is about me and about Nik and everyone else who loves Oliver.

In a strange way this whole thing taught me a lesson that I've learned many times over, a lesson that I will probably keep learning: Mothering Oliver isn't just about getting him to do what I want him to do; it is about giving him the ability to decide what should be done -- two very different things. And in a way I'm grateful for this lesson because every day now, for the past ten days, for at least an hour, Oliver and I -- and sometimes Sam -- have had a little party of sorts. And we wouldn't have had that if I hadn't been willing to yield a little bit and let Oliver lead the parade.


  1. Beautiful post! And I see nothing wrong with writing about poop. :-) It's a real part of a family's day to day life and parenting decisions.

  2. Very insightful as usual, Christine.

    I took the easy way out with Henry- his babysitter potty trained him pretty much without my help. But I think that also speaks to what you said about relationships: his relationship with L was special in its own way, and different from his relationship with me. Somehow it wasn't threatening to his autonomy to go in the potty for her?

    Yay for Oliver!!

  3. I've had similar eye-opening experiences with my son. But like you, I seem to have to learn this lesson over and over again.

    I see it emerging now in terms of school. He feels like he gets no say in the amount of time that school and schoolwork take up in his day and so he's pushing back and we are in a struggle of sorts, but I don't know how to give him control on this one. I don't know how to relinquish the struggle.

    You've reminded me, though, that I have to spend some time figuring this one out. For both our sakes.

  4. First of all, "You're all wet"???. Wow!!! I mean the fact that you said "I'm all wet" and he turned around and used the correct pronoun of "You're"...holly shit, that is so amazing to me. Can you imagine once Oliver decides to let all those words out that are inside his head? I can't wait to hear about all the wonderful things he will say.

    Second of all, we need to become party poopers here too. I know too well this battle of wills that you write about. I even deal with this with Brian. I have to make sure that he thinks he is making the decisions. I need to try to give him as much control as possible. So instead of saying "do your homework", I have to say something more along the lines of "So, how are you going to plan your day today? Are you going to play outside first and then do your homework or are you going to do your homework first?". He is such a sucker and falls for my way of manipulating the situation every time. With Andrew things are much more complicated and his will just seems that much stronger. But, like you describe, when I just let it go and relax about things. Just Play! Then he relaxes and feels more happy and secure and then does things on his own terms. It really is not always so easy. I am sure I will keep learning and re-learning as I go. I just seem to be one of those people that things don't sink in so easily. I need it drilled in over and over again.

  5. This is inspirational - and, frankly, it's just the kind of inspiration I need right now. Thanks!

  6. It's so funny that you posted this because we recently had a breakthrough with our potty issues. Like you and Oliver, it became a battle of wills between Kate and me. Nothing was working. Knowing how stubborn she is and how she needs to feel in control of things, I decided to let her make the decision when to go. So, I completely stopped talking about the bathroom. And she's being going. I didn't realize how much I had been nagging her before. Now she feels in control and successful. We still have a long way to go, but at least we're headed in the right direction.

    BTW, "You're all wet" is awesome! Getting soaked was well worth it!

  7. OK, first of all, am I the only one who can't reisit pointing out some very "punny" lines you used?? The "stand over the toilet" and the "eliminate the struggle..." I cracked up. Witty.

    Anyway, you have once again provided me with such a necessary perspective as I enter some seriously new territory with *my* Nik. Brilliant. Thank you.

    And Oliver's language...amazing and beautiful. For the record, you're not all're "spot on!" ;-)

  8. How terrific. What a great insight to have - it's made an impression on me! I think I need to let my boys "take the lead" too. Thanks.

  9. Great post.

    You are so right. Sometimes we have to follow their lead and they do take us on some pretty amazing journeys!

  10. Well done you. I can completely relate to all of this. Everytime I find my self veering off down a blind alley I find it tough to get back on track. I almost feel that I need a good coach to give me a poke and remind me what's really important.

  11. Thanks everyone for your coments -- 'though I can't really take credit for being, as Gretchen said, particularly insightful. I mean, it took ALL SUMMER and plenty of tears to figure it out.

    Also, NiksMom, I would love to lay claim to the wit -- I'm so envious of the many good writers in the blogosphere that have such humor and grace with words. But those puns? Completely unintended!

  12. I've been struggling with some of those same issues (not poop, we aren't even attempting potty training yet), but how much to push for things to happen, and how much to let things happen.

    We are still doing some ABA (a few hours), and I have a lot of philosophical questions about the whole approach.

  13. Anonymous2:46 PM

    "And we wouldn't have had that if I hadn't been willing to yield a little bit and let Oliver lead the parade."

    brilliant!! so inspiring and true, christine. i love this post! fluffy needs to be his own man. i need to remember that. with a 'non compliant' kid, it's a thin line to walk, the one of establishing guider/apprenticeship relationship but also one that makes room for individual expression and decision making. that creates ownership that empowers--the best thing i can give him, er, or rather that i can ALLOW for him to give himself.

    party poop on!!!