Tuesday, July 26, 2011

How to handle unwanted behavior

Well, one thing is for sure, we were losing this battle.

Our older son was five years old, and he was standing on the top of our mini van with shining bright eyes and an ornery smirk on his face. He was mocking us.

So scared to make a sudden move, we decided that I should cover the back end of the car in case our son should fall while my husband worked on climbing after him. It was a regular cat and mouse chase. Husband climbed up the left side, son would inch a little down on the right side. Husband would run over to the right side, son would inch back over toward the left side.

It was infuriating!!!

And, boy, was it his favorite game. For a child unable to express his thoughts and verbally engage in this world, he was often left to create his own entertainment. Unfortunately, people are a great source of entertainment to him. He adores pushing people's buttons. I truly believes he thinks we are all quite stupid and silly characters.

I don't remember how we got him off of that van, but as soon as he was in my husband's arms, he was promptly taken onto the porch where my husband forced him to sit on his lap in a modified "time out."

"No climbing on the van," my husband said.

"Kwime on ban," our son said with a very satisfied smile on his face.

"NO climbing on the van," my husband repeated with more emphasis.

"Kwime on ban," our son said again. Grin and giggle.

"NO CLIMB!" Husband was getting testy.

"Kwime." Son countered.

Okay, so they sat there until finally our son relented and said, "No climb," but, really, what good did it do? The kid was lying. I know he was. He got too much satisfaction out of that entire event. So, how to shape that behavior? How to make the punishment relevant?

There were times when our son was little, when his disability was raw and untamed, and everything set him off. He couldn't sit at church. No, he could not tolerate family dinners. Celebrating holidays with groups of people was not something he could pull off, and, sorry, but we just couldn't take him to the public events that others enjoyed. There was lots of crying. Lots of darting away. Lots of avoidance. People looked at my husband and me--SAID to my husband and me--that we needed to discipline him. We still get comments like this about our younger son. Our children, in these situations, seem wild and unmannerly.

The truth is, they are exhibiting symptoms. People with autism have difficulty with social gatherings. Sensory processing disorders make it very hard to handle group settings. No, I wasn't about to punish my children for struggling to exist in this world. They needed my help. These were not situations where they were misbehaving.

However, climbing on top of the mini van WAS a situation where our son was misbehaving.

Hey, not every action from a special needs child is linked to that disability. He was being a kid, and he was being BAD. But, again, how do you punish?

Forcing a child with autism to take a time out, a person who shuns other people so that he can be alone, is counterintuitive. One friend recently suggested to require my son to look into my eyes for a given amount of time as that is something distasteful. I haven't tried that.

We've taken away his favored vacuum of the day. Yes, we've put it out of reach---an upright vacuum right on top of our refrigerator. It's a good thing our ceilings are high! This briefly worked, however, if he craves the ornery deed enough, it is worth losing the vacuum.

For our son, reprimanding him has to happen in a way that is relevant. Sometimes that means picking something he is liking and carrying at that very instant. The method is fluid but its premise is the same: in order for it to work for him, it has to mean something to him.

It's easy to see what to punish and what not to punish, but I'm still working on how to handle the gray areas. A few months ago, our son placed a chair under the fan to the attic and pulled out a pile of insulation. He clearly wanted to get to the blades of that fan to spin---spinning things is a trait of autism. He made a mess! He could have REALLY hurt himself if he had fallen off of that chair as it was at the top of the stairs. And, I really didn't appreciate the insulation itch that hit him 30 minutes later as we were in the lobby of the local hospital because he dropped his pants over and over in order to scratch himself raw.

I guess we can file this one under "Be Careful What You Wish For." But, I still haven't figured out how to handle it when it happens again. And, believe me, it will happen again.

He sure is a piece of work, this kid. And, this is definitely an area where he keeps us on our toes. A diagnosis does not give him a Get Out Of Jail Free card. It might make it a little trickier for us as parents to determine the source of the behavior--is it the result of some mental disconnect or just plain orneriness--and it might also mean that the manner in which the behavior is treated takes some extra thought; however, it certainly isn't ignored.

Could you imagine that disaster?!


  1. I know that you've said it before, but I'm going to say it again. You are a really good parent.

    The fact that you believe this: "No, I wasn't about to punish my children for struggling to exist in this world. They needed my help. These were not situations where they were misbehaving" and also this: "Hey, not every action from a special needs child is linked to that disability. He was being a kid, and he was being BAD." speaks volumes.

    Your kid has unique needs, but he's also a KID, and as such, he needs guidance and sometimes, discipline. But it has to be effective FOR HIM, and it should never be cruel, which is exactly what it would be to treat him as though he doesn't have different needs than the next kid, and force him into situations that the workings of his body don't allow him to process comfortably.

    I guess as parents, we all struggle to find that balance--to help our kids learn to choose safe behavior and to become people who not only care for themselves, but also to consider how their actions impact others and the world around them--yet when you have kids who have extraordinary needs, finding that balance requires even more thought and care. You never seem to lose sight of that, even through the stress and the sleeplessness and the uninvited (and I'm guessing, unwelcome) advice that comes your way.

    You really do rock.

  2. It's true, the distinction between the two was a turning point in parenting for me.

    You know Beth, you are incredibly insightful! I read your comments on all these blogs and am amazed by your ability to get to the very heart of the matter. Your are one smart gal!!!

    Thanks for reading and for your word!!