I paused Sesame Street this morning in order to put on my son’s socks and shoes for school. We were in a hurry and his frenzied response to Grover mixing cake batter was too much to handle as I maneuvered the laces. He wasn’t happy.
Since Lucas is non-verbal, he didn’t call me names or argue. Instead, he did what he usually does when he is unhappy. He let out this low, sustained whine. Maybe it was the time of day. Maybe it was culmination of morning frustration. Either way, I stopped tying immediately and looked up at him.
Hey. What are you doing? What is that? “Ehhhhh”? Come on. Why are whining like a baby?
The whine suddenly stopped and my boy glared at me like the kid in that viral video who bugged his eyes out when they took one of his nachos. I continued.
Listen, Lucas. You’re a little man. You hear me? You have to act like it. You can be unhappy. You can be angry. But you can’t whine like a baby. No, no, no. You understand. No “ehhhhhhhh”. We don’t do that.
I’m not sure he fully understood everything I was trying to say. In terms of explanations though, I thought I had done a pretty good job. He knows what “no, no, no” means and, if I say so myself, I do a pretty spot-on impression of his whine. I always have.
I taught myself how awhile back when I learned to mock his purposeful and avoidable whinging fits in order to stop them. Tantrums at bedtime were the catalysts for this humorous approach. I’d say, “Lucas! Bed!” This would cause him to toss both hands in the air, fall to the ground in the Wayne’s World “We’re Not Worthy” position, and let out a trademark “ehhhhhhh!” He was hilarious in his dramatic presentation. So, I decided to beat him to the punch.
Instead of allowing this fainting tantrum to go on, I commandeered it as my own. I’d say “Lucas! Bed!” Then, just as he’d raise his arms in the air, I’d raise my own and fall to the ground in my own unworthy heap while imitating his “ehhhhhh”. He’d stop short, give me that sideways grin that says “You’re such a jerk”, and then laugh as he climbed into bed. We might not share a whole lot of common words, but the look on his face was worth a thousand.
His reaction to these moments might surprise people. The universally accepted thought process is that a child with Autism like my son doesn’t “get it”. In fact, some people think interrupting these fits with anything other than concern will only make them worse and, in some cases, they are totally right. If Lucas was having a genuine meltdown or showing signs of over-stimulation, then joking about it or trying to laugh away his outburst would only prolong the agony. It would be cruel to a boy who has no other way of dealing with his overflowing emotion.
That’s not what was happening here, though. His paused Sesame Street cry or unhappy bedtime shenanigans had nothing to do with sensory issues or stimulation. This was my kid wanting what he wanted and whining until he got it. As his dad, I couldn’t let that happen.
The sudden way that my voice can shut down one of these unneeded outbursts often shocks people who have never seen it. There have been times when my son, crying his eyes out over having to get ready for bed, has stopped short when I raised my hand and firmly said, “Enough, Lucas!” He sucks up his sniffles and continues on without another tear. When it’s a bratty whine, I can usually stop it dead in its tracks. The ones beyond his control are the ones that you have to console him through. The trick is figuring out which type of outburst I’m dealing with.
As his parent, it’s my job to spot those moments that I can correct for his better development. While I never want to make light of his stimulation issues or frustrations with communication, I also don’t want to encourage him to become a spoiled little dillweed. For me, as a father, raising a man who might cry because he is overwhelmed is acceptable. Raising a man who cries because he doesn’t get his own way is not. I don’t want him to be that man.
I started doing this early on in his life. Back when he was still a world-class runner, I would try to hold him so he couldn’t dart away. He’d struggle and cry, so I would do the one thing that gave me a mental break from worry. I’d mess with him.
I’d have my arms wrapped around his body like a spider as he sat on my lap. He’d be working harder than anything to get away. So, I’d let go and seemingly give my verbal blessing.
OK, buddy. Go on. Go.
Then, just as he was about to fly off into the abyss, I’d snatch him up in a giant bearhug and pull him back while laughing.
No! No you don’t! Uh oh! He’s back! Welcome back, Lucas!
You know what would happen? He’d get whinier and more upset. So, I did what any insane dad would do. I kept messing with him.
Oh. You want to go? I didn’t know. I’m sorry, kiddo. Sorry. My bad. Go. Why are you sitting here? You can just get up and…
Bearhug. Pull. Surprised gasp.
Uh oh! Nope! Ha ha! Yay, Lucas is back!
It usually took three tries before he was giggling along. After five, he was in hysterics. The more I did it, the funnier it was for him, To this day, it’s one of the things I do with him that makes him laugh the loudest. It’s as if he can’t believe that someone in his life would have the nerve to interrupt his tantrums. He puts a lot of work into them and most people just give in. Not Daddy. Daddy’s nuts.
It’s a delicate balance when trying to raise a non-verbal child. I want him to be the best person he can grow into without falsely labeling behavior beyond his control as him being “bratty” or allowing bad behavior within his control to slide. I’ve miscalculated a few through the years, but overall, my track record is pretty good. Most parents can boast the same about their own kids, verbal or otherwise.
I’d like to think that this has had a positive effect on him. I see it in his conduct at home and at school. Just because he doesn’t communicate in the traditional way, that doesn’t mean he has to use negative behavior to achieve his goals. He just needs to know the proper way to get his point across and I have to teach him what that proper way is. So that’s what I do.
Will he grow up to be a man who never whines over an empty cup or cries because he has to do something he doesn’t want to do? Maybe not. But if that happens, it won’t be because I didn’t try to steer him in the right direction with compassion and understanding. I’m his dad and that’s my job. I’ll do the best I can do to make sure he becomes the best he can be.