Here's another excerpt of my memoir-in-progress about working with children on the autism spectrum while raising a son with Asperger's Syndrome.
Every week, the special education teacher and I spend several hours meeting with parents whose children are struggling in school. Some have learning problems, some behavioral. Over the years, I get good at dispensing advice at the Student Success Team, or SST, meetings. Catch them being good, I advise teachers. Use a reward chart at home, I suggest to parents. Emphasize the positive. A calm approach is best. I’m not sure when I realize I am a hypocrite. A doctor who doesn’t take her own advice.
Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde
We know he’s getting sick when we hear his raspy, Linda Blair Exorcist voice. One trigger for bad times is illness, and we come to learn that every time he has an ear infection or a cold, we’re headed down the mean streets of Tantrumtown. We are riding the waves of The Pattern: six months of living with our boy, our Dr. Jekyll, then a month or so of tantrums and Mr. Hyde-like behavior. Ben’s pattern has always been to build—sometimes for days—toward an explosion, and once it is over, we wait for the relief of his sobs. Then we can count on our boy returning, our exhausted, depleted boy coming back to us. When he’s back, he says okay instead of no all the time.
For ten years, I work at one elementary school testing and counseling. I lead anger management groups for first and second grade boys; groups for kids living with abusive parents; groups for children living with an alcoholic parent; cognitive therapy groups to inoculate children against depression; and even a group of almost-mute, shy kids. I train 4th and 5th graders as conflict managers. I love working with kids who are not in special education because they seem so extraordinary in comparison, but they’re just “typical.”
The speech and language therapist and I begin talking about the couple of quirky kids we see every year who don’t have friends, who only engage in conflicts with their classmates, who get along better with younger or older children. We wonder what we should be doing for them. Over the ten years at that school, I will test 200 kids with learning disabilities. A few with emotional disturbances. Even before it begins getting a lot of press, I get good at recognizing ADHD. I’m no longer one of the new psychologists. Younger ones are coming in. Sometimes they ask me for advice.
We Are All a Little Compulsive
A few months into first grade, I notice Ben’s new habit on our walks to school. Every ten feet or so, he stoops and pushes at his socks where they rub his Achilles tendons. Pam found short tennis socks for him with only one seam at the toes that he can line up exactly, but now the ridge hugging his ankles irritates him. This morning, when I tightened his shoelaces, I noticed ugly, red calluses have formed on each heel from the frequent rubbing.
“Hurry up,” I whisper to him when he stops on the sidewalk and leans over. I’m embarrassed and pray no one notices his goofy habit. “We’re going to be late.”
“Stop telling me that,” he says, covering his ears with his palms. “It makes me do it more.” Clothing tags at the back of his neck and waist make him itch and cry. With a tiny pair of fingernail scissors, we cut tags out of every pair of shorts, every tee shirt, every pair of pajamas, and every swimsuit. When he began tugging at his underwear—“It makes my cheeks stick together,” he said—we bought him boxers. When I fold our laundry, I remember my grandmother folding my grandfather’s boxers, and in some ways Ben reminds me of an old man. Demanding particular comforts of life.
When Ben watches videos, he twirls his hair at the back, and eventually a small patch near his crown thins noticeably. He loves his soft stuffed animals, his lion in particular, and while sucking on his first two fingers, he caresses the lion’s mane with the other three until the poor beast’s fluffy aura is flattened and bare in spots. “Why is he so nervous?” Pam asks me.
“I don’t know.”
“How do we help him?”
For once, I have nothing to say.
Causes Kathy Briccetti Supports
Berkeley-East Bay Humane Society
Women's Educational Media