Susan's Blog

Saturday, October 3, 2009

My Son, My Self

When we first taught Nat to ride a bike, at age 7, (actually it was my dad and Ned who taught him, I just stood by, tensed with excitement) we learned a lot about the intricacies of Nat’s psyche. At 7, Nat was becoming mischievous and very apt to push to the edge of any rule. He was fascinated with rules, and with breaking them. He felt profound joy in consequences, no matter what they were. Rip that photo of Daddy? Time out. Yay!! Pee in a plant? Help clean it up. Hooray!! It seemed like there was nothing that we could use for leverage (nothing that would last in terms of efficacy). Nothing worked long enough so that we would end up the authorities and he would end up knowing he had done wrong– feeling he had done wrong. His preoccupation with testing and danger was worrisome because it was so clever. The harder we tried, the more intense and charged it all felt to him, and the more we were stimulating him.

I think of Nat’s ages of 7 and 8 as when he began to develop difficult behavior, and ultimately, the aggressive behavior that got him in so much trouble when he was 10, and even as a teen. Nat’s periods of aggressive behaviors come and go, and are very different from how they were when he was 10, but there remains that characteristic of stimulation-escalation.

I have seen, over the years, that our responses are intricately tied to Nat’s escalation. Everyone in Nat’s life — his family, the teachers and the House staff — experiences Nat’s rare outbursts as happening “from the blue.” That expression — out of the blue — is one that has battered my ears ever since Nat was 8. There has never been a teacher who could figure out the “antecedent” to Nat’s outbursts (screaming, biting his arm, pinching someone). Every single person Nat has spent time with has tried to tease it apart: “Well, I think it was because the music on the van was turned down to low,” or “He gets this way when the light changes, when the seasons change,” or “He could not find his shoes.”

Naturally, when anyone gets upset back at Nat, he becomes more upset. We call it escalating. Once Nat is charged up by something he has done, it only gets worse. He cannot pull himself back from the brink except with enormous effort. It’s as if he is thinking, “Well, I must be horrible for doing that, which makes me feel horrible, and so there’s nothing but horrible.” He is imprisoned by his actions, he is flailing out in an utterly impotent attempt to break free, but it only makes him further trapped, like Satan frozen in the ice at the very bottom of Dante’s Inferno.

This dynamic is not unique to Nat. Being trapped in a self-destructive behavior is the universally human condition. The spiral downwards. Taking no prisoners. Hung for a lion as a lamb. I understand what Nat is feeling more than he knows. I am prone to the same fatalism. Once I slip, I continue falling. I have a terrible time trying to grab hold of something and pull myself back up.

How can I teach Nat to do the very thing that I struggle with myself?

To prevent Nat’s outbursts, we model effective behavior. We all scramble to help Nat by repeating things like, “Nat, you can use your words and say, ‘I want the music louder, please.’ Or, “just say ‘Help me!'” Whenever we remind Nat about the words he can say, he then says them immediately, but of course, the moment has passed. We are left hoping he will remember next time, and of course, 99% of the time, he does. Most of the time he is not bothered by any of these things; he takes most irritations in his stride, continuing about his day with a cheerful mellow attitude and a ready smile.

In our home, neutral is a distant dream, especially for one as emotional as me. My straining, fear-filled breath and tensed body set him off further. The escalation of Nat’s anger and upset are completely symbiotic with mine. But I have learned how to “act” neutral, how to pull my immediate self a few feet back and present Nat with Ghost Mommy, a brittle Stepford Susan, which kind of works. I know how to direct him to the couch, set a timer for a minute of calm behavior, and how to then welcome him back if he has emerged calmer (otherwise, the timer cycle is set to zero once more, and so on. It usually only takes one or two repeats before he is okay again).

Slowly but surely, his outbursts have become less severe. But not more predictable. Yet, Nat has learned how to detect the hot spot in the distance and take the right path, for the most part. Week after week his teacher tells me how he expresses himself and thus staves off anger: “The velcro, the velcro,” he repeated, pointing at a tiny piece of velcro on the floor, which had become detached from the wall calendar. The teacher picked it up, and all was well.

Nat regulates himself before trouble builds. I wish he could teach me how he does it.


We have to keep reminding ourselves–and them–how amazing our kids are! 😉

— added by Holly on Saturday, October 3, 2009 at 10:48 am

In a majority of the kids so many behaviors are a result of lack of communication. How frustrating that must be! Has he ever had a full aug. eval.? Dr. Howard Shane is very good and with the new ITouch technology many kids are using this as a device (with the special app. you can buy). I am wondering why the center or his Neuropsychologist hasn't pushed for this given his age and the fact that continued full verbal prompting is very hard to fade successfully.

— added by Anonymous on Saturday, October 3, 2009 at 2:05 pm

Your blog was a good place for me to go tonight. My heart is hurting for the same reason tonight (my daughter is 20) and in residential, home for the night. She threw her plate of spaghetti and ripped all the pictures she loves … ouch … she is trying to tell me something … ouch …I don't know what … Stepford ME cleans it up, no reaction … she chuckles softly to herself, mumbling don't break the plate, don't rip things … reinforcement was just watching me not react, cleaning it up … ouch, ouch, ouch goes my heart.

— added by Anonymous on Saturday, October 3, 2009 at 8:17 pm

Yes, behavior is the primary form of communication if you lack verbal ability. It is important to pay close attention to this. It speaks volumes.

Is the iTouch technology appropriate for adults working and living in the community? You need a support system that is well versed and open to this kind of communication. Also, how can you ensure that the device is not stolen or damaged?

— added by Anonymous on Saturday, October 3, 2009 at 10:13 pm

Great post, Susan. Our family is so conditioned to watch out for changes in Jared's mannerisms, his tone of voice, his body temperature. Jared is always clammy during and after an outburst, even though his temper is flaring, he is cold to the touch. Calm repetition is the best method, if he sees any anger in me, it ratchets up his response. Cursed Play-Doh!! This past weekend, it was like Camp David at Big Lots – we went over all the reasons Play-Doh is banned, but modeling clay is allowed. There was some grandstanding, but then capitulation.

Working with clay has been marvelous for Jared, his sculptures reveal skills and gifts we were unaware he possessed. However, containing the clay work is the issue now. Coffee tables, tv screens, windows walls, floors are the surfaces Jared chooses for his work; T-rex's chasing cavemen, headless horsemen and a variety of bad guys chasing Scooby and the gang, stampedes, marching bands. Great stuff – all temporary, he crushes them after you have seen them or taken a picture. He loves Sculpy, just can't bear to bake it.

Our lives are an adventure – and Jared makes mine richer – but it is definitely a balancing act. Lisa

— added by Anonymous on Tuesday, October 6, 2009 at 10:50 am

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