When I first began writing about my family, my goal was to show that raising a non-verbal child with autism can be quite similar to raising a verbal child without autism. In fact, taking care of my son, despite his lack of speech, can be even easier at times.
Sweet and kind, my boy, much like his sister, has a loving demeanor that comes out during the most unexpected moments. When I need a hug the most, there he is. His arms outstretched and smile on his face, I melt as he wraps his arms around me. Perhaps due to his autism, he doesn’t offer loving embraces for selfish intentions or to “butter me up”. There are no expectations or duplicitous reasons. He just does it because he’s a wonderful kid.
He is, however, still a kid and kids can kind of be jerky.
That’s universal. Children can make us roll our eyes, yank out our hair, and curse under our breath. Whether they’re asking questions, flushing stuff down the toilet, or asking questions about the stuff they’re flushing down the toilet, there are plenty of days when simply preventing yourself from hurling your little bundles of joy through the window should be seen as a win. Watching the remote control spin down the drain is a forgivable reason for any mom or dad to shotput them into the yard.
What separates my son with autism from his sister, however, is the persistence of his jerkier moments. Handling his “naughty” instincts can be a harder road to travel versus a child who fears the consequences. Threats, stares, and punishments don’t work the same. While my daughter might relent to my icy glare or insistence that “enough is enough”, Lucas doesn’t. Many times, he doubles down with an expression that says, “Yeah? Buckle up. Knuckle up. Sorry.”
For example, when my son is hungry, the world stops. He will ask me, via his communication device, repeatedly for food. Furiously tapping away, the words “pirate booty”, “pizza”, and “sandwich” ring out on repeat like a goth kid playing Type O Negative on Spotify. It doesn’t matter if he just ate an apple, sandwich, or a Thanksgiving dinner. His mouth is empty and he demands something edible to stuff inside of it. Even a firm “no” doesn’t stop him from asking over…and over…and over again. Each time, the whining that accompanies it grows even louder.
It’s important not to relent in times like these. I don’t want him to associate tantrums and forcefulness with getting his way. Soon, he will be much bigger than the giant he is today at ten years old and his forcefulness won’t be as “adorable” as I see it now. I am conscious of that and know it’s my job to not unleash the Pirate Booty Monster on the world.
For many unfamiliar with my son, reading a story like this will bring about sad feelings. “Aw. Poor guy. He doesn’t understand. His lack of speech means lack of comprehension and he just doesn’t get why he’s not being fed constantly. Come on, Dad. Let him have it. He doesn’t know what’s happening.”
Well, don’t cry for him, Argentina. He might not have understood when he was little, just like verbal children, but that’s not the case today. He totally gets it. How do I know? Because the second I leave his sight, as I did the other day, he darts into the kitchen, flings open the fridge, and shoves whatever he can into his face. He knows when to strike and how I am the only person preventing him in that moment. In our most recent example from yesterday, it was a tin foil package of homemade brownies.
There’s the sad face again. I can feel it through the keyboard. People are reading this and thinking, “Aw. Poor guy. He doesn’t understand that it’s wrong.”
Again, save your tissues. He knows damn well it’s wrong. You know how I know this? Because of his reaction when I come walking into the room. He freezes in place and stares at me with a look of dread straight out of a cornball comedy. I would say it was the face of a figurative hand caught in the cookie jar, but it’s not. It’s the face of the literal hand caught in the cookie jar.
There was a time when I would get enraged at this and, in all honesty, I still do sometimes. However, it’s not that simple. While an incensed lecture might prevent a child not on the spectrum from doing it ever again, it’s not the same for Lucas. Anger doesn’t teach or deter him. If anything, he already knows that the anger is coming and is ready for it. He doesn’t seem to care. I’m not sure if it’s his lack of fear or his lack of self-control. Either way, he knows what he is doing is wrong and accepts the risks that come with it. Still, he does it anyway.
It’s brazen. He doesn’t tip-toe like a Scooby Doo villain or mind the crumbs he leaves behind. Hell, he doesn’t even close the refrigerator door. It’s all about getting what he wants with no regard for the aftermath. It’s like a bank robber emptying the stolen bags of money into the bank lobby and rolling around in it until the cops arrive.
The key, in our case, is teaching him patience. Showing him that I understand what he wants and, if he waits, he’ll get it. I count down from 20 during his meltdown moments and make him wait to get up from his chair. I take away iPads or toys that he has if he purposely goes against what he’s told not to do. I deal with it after-the-fact and hope that next time he remembers how getting his way, in the grand scheme of things, wasn’t worth it.
That, however, requires an extreme amount of patience on my part. It deprives me of the temporary pleasure that comes from getting my personal aggression out. It flies in the face of my parental instincts and is perhaps the one thing that truly makes special needs parenting a difficult task.
It is however, what’s right for him and, as he gets older, I know it will be what’s right for the world around him.