I have spoken many times here about Charlie and his aggressive behavior. I have talked at length about all the ways it has affected him and me and our family, in general. But, at the heart of it is always just a little boy who is trying the best he can, in that moment, to let me know something. As always, all behavior is communication.
So, when I read Brenda Rothman of Mama Be Good’s wonderful post this morning about aggressive behaviors and Autism. It inspired me to get the post out of my head that I’ve had rolling around for a while.
It’s what I like to think of as my post game wrap up whenever Charlie has an aggressive incident with me. Since every social interaction by nature requires at least two people to occur, I like to review these incidents and see where I fed into it and made it worse. Please know, this is not an exercise in self-flagellation. I fully accept that I am not a therapy robot. I am human. I have emotions and reactions and get frustrated and tired and make mistakes. I’m fine with that, as long as I try to find ways to do better. I believe there are always ways that I can still be myself and express those very real feelings and at the same time create an interaction and environment that gives Charlie what he needs to feel safe and to learn.
The last time we had an issue was a few weeks back. I took both my boys to the home of a friend of mine for an afternoon play date with her two boys, one of whom is also on the autism spectrum. Despite a lot of apprehension on the part of my boys about going to visit strangers, it was a lovely afternoon. I got some much needed grown up conversation and both boys played very well. I felt a lot of pride watching them.
Then my friend’s husband arrived home. I realized with a little panic that it must be quite late and I felt a little embarrassment about being there still when they clearly must need to get going with their evening routines. I would add that these feeling were purely my own social scripts, or perhaps my mother’s social scripts of politeness. Neither my friend nor her husband gave any hint that they needed me to leave right away.
I tracked down Charlie in the backyard and called to him that it was time to go. He ignored me. I did this a few more times and he continued to ignore me. I felt a growing panic that I was being rude. I know Charlie usually needs several warnings of time before we can leave a fun activity. He needs time to prepare himself, to let go. Then he needs a count down to focus himself on the exact moment to let go. I know this. He was trying to tell me this by ignoring me calling him to come. But, I felt self-conscious that we should go. I wasn’t open to listening to his needs, only my own. So, filled with tension, I walked out into the yard to Charlie and said we were leaving right now and he needed to come to the car.
In reaction to this unexpected transition, he picked up a plastic bat he was playing with and hit me on the nose with it. That’s him telling me he is afraid and feeling a loss of control at being asked to transition so quickly and unexpectedly and he doesn’t know how to handle it. That’s when I should have put aside everything about me and calmly acknowledged his fear and gone back to the tools for transitioning I should have used at square one. It’s also, unfortunately, the moment when I made the choice to take my reaction in another direction.
I grabbed him by the hand and started walking him to the car while very firmly stating he was getting in the car and I was very angry with him and he would sit in his room when we got home. He reacted to this by screaming, running away, and hiding. It took me a 20 minute search through the neighboring yards, with a freaked out Tommy in tow, to find him. When I did, he screamed some more and threw anything he could get his hands on at me.
So, post game wrap up, what was so wrong with my reaction? It’s not so out of the norm of what any parent would do in that situation.
What’s wrong is it doesn’t work for Charlie. It doesn’t convey to him any of the things I needed him to learn to be able to act differently in the future. What’s wrong is that instead of creating an atmosphere of calm so he could work through his fears himself, I frightened him by becoming unpredictable and scary myself. What’s wrong is I know all of this and, for some reason, I chose to do it anyway. That’s the post game piece I need to understand.
In that moment, when he hit me in the nose with the bat, it stung, of course. And I was really pissed at him for hurting me. But, that’s not the reason for my reaction. Those are all reasonable feelings and reactions I could have spoken to him about at some point later. I’m used to doing that. He responds well to hearing that, when he is ready.
But, this reaction? This was all about me feeling embarrassed. I was embarrassed that a friend saw my son hurt me. Never mind that she was one of us, that she got it, and wouldn’t judge. It’s really not about her either. It’s about all the voices that play through my head, that I have heard so many times before, that tell me I need to control my son. The voices that have told me it is my fault he is aggressive, that I allow him to be this way. The voices that have told me that he does not fit any of their stereotypes about autism and so he can’t really be autistic, I’m just trying to excuse his bad behavior. The voices that have told me I am raising a monster. My own voice that creeps in to say I am a bad mother, that I had no business thinking I could raise a child.
All those negative voices whip around through my head in a flash and I feel a need to show I am in control. I feel the need to put on a show. A see-I’m-a-good-mother-after-all look-how-I-take-control show.
It is when I understand this, that I have a point where I can grow. I can realize how much those voices still haunt me, no matter how confident I feel with my parenting. I can listen to them when they pop up. I can acknowledge they are there> But I can not let them control me.
I can not let them strip me of the tools I know work for my son. I can not let them take what would have been a great moment to teach Charlie about handling change and disappointment and instead teach him I am not a safe constant in his life.