Non-Verbal Attention Seeking and Me

My wife and I were sitting with our son’s in-home therapist the other day. With the first few weeks out of the way, we wanted to make sure we were helping his progress go along as smoothly as possible. So we asked if we should stay for the sessions or leave them alone.  She responded.

It’s OK either way. You can watch what we’re doing. As long as you’re home, that’s what is important. Perhaps when he gets upset, you can leave me alone with him, so he knows not to seek out attention during his meltdowns or tantrums. He seems to look for Dad when that happens.

Wait, what?

He seeks out my attention during meltdowns? That’s crazy. It doesn’t even make any sense. I never really thought about it before.

Once I did, though, I realized that, yeah. He totally seeks me out during his meltdowns and tantrums.

seeIt wasn’t until she said that and I started to focus on my non-verbal son’s non-verbal response to these moments of frustration that I saw them for what they are. For example, most kids would run away from parents that upset them, right?

Not my boy. He collapses into me. Like a melodramatic actor from a 1950s stage play, he will fall into my arms while weeping over being denied a loaf of bread he tried to steal from the kitchen. Sometimes he will even arch his body backwards and place the back of his hand against his forehead as if fainting like Blanche DuBois. If he had words, they’d be, “Oh my Heavens. Whatever has become of me?”

Me? I catch him. I hug him. I tickle him. I try to make things better.

I’m a total sucker.

Do you know why I’m a total sucker? Because of that guilt voice in my head. That voice that lectures me about the uphill battle Lucas has to climb throughout life. I poke myself with words like, “you’re lucky that you can talk” and “he doesn’t even understand what’s happening.” I feel awful for this world of confusion I project on him in my head. I just want to make everything better.

People don’t see those levels of guilt and worry that come with having a non-verbal child on the Autism spectrum or any child with communication issues. I’ll be putting on his socks and notice a bruise or cut on his leg. Immediately, I start to ask him questions.

Lucas, what happened? You got hurt? Your leg got hurt? What did you do?

He’ll reach down and tap his cut as if to say, “Yeah. Cut. Right here.” Then he’ll turn his gaze back to the TV or window. I’m left to ask the remaining questions to myself.

How long has that been there? How did he do that? Did it hurt? Was he home? Did he fall? Did someone do that on purpose? Who the hell hurt my kid on purpose? I swear I will kill whoever did this to my kid on purpose. How dare they do this to my kid on purpose!

At this point, I’m imagining scenarios where I am battling a group of leg-cutting ninjas who jumped my son in the kitchen before any of us were awake. I still haven’t even pulled the final shoe onto his foot and I’m already filled with violent rage over a cut that probably happened when he tried to wedge his weeble-wobble body through a partially blocked door. That’s how they all usually happen.

Still, it could be ninjas.

Hearing that he sought me out made me think about these moments. Thinking about these moments made me want to change them or, at least, minimize them. I was now conscious of what I was doing and continuing would be willfully allowing him to run to me rather than handling his own issues. So, I tried pulling back. It didn’t take long.

seek.jpgWithin the first hour, I walked in on him during a pantry-raid. Sitting in my office, I heard the clomping of his Flintstone feet going up the stairs. I heard the gate at the top slam shut followed by the sound of the kitchen cabinet being swung open. By the time I made my way up the steps, he was thumbing through our dry goods as if it was the card catalog at the library.

Lucas! No. Come out of there!

He immediately raised both hands to his temples, as he always does when he’s caught. It’s the same pose people make when the police tell them to put their hands on their head. It makes me curious about what his past lives must have been like. Then, he turned to me with that pained expression and let out a loud and powerful whine.

I stared at him blankly and held open the gate for him to go back down the stairs.

He seemed confused as he walked towards me. As he entered my space, he let out another whine and collapsed his head against my stomach. I stared down at him.  No hug. No rubbed head. He looked up at me. Still, I held the gate open and didn’t react in any other way. He stepped past me and descended the staircase. He didn’t whine again.

It went off without incident. Had I tried to “soothe” him, it would have probably gone on longer. Ironic but truthful. It was a strange thing to realize.

As my child gets older, things are going to upset him. People are going to make him share TV time and be less forthcoming with communal snacks from their lunch plates. Life is going to start kicking him the same way it kicked me and the same way it kicks you. We all get kicked. The world is full of kickers.

I won’t always be there and, in my absence, there won’t always be someone there to take my place. Sometimes he’ll have to be upset and that’s it. No hugs. No calming words. No outside forces. There will just be him and his emotions. He has to learn how to handle that and I have to let him. So, I will.

Most of the time.