Wednesday, May 1, 2013

This Post Might Make You Lose Your Cookies: Autism and Getting Sick

"UUUhhhhhhhh! Mamamaaaaa! I'm gonna throw up!" our younger son said to me yesterday between fits of gagging. He was sick.

"Honey," I said to him calmly, "you already are throwing up.  Getting more anxious will just make you feel worse. Let it go."

We were in the family room of our home with our heads hanging over a trash can, and this child was on the cusp of an anxiety attack.  Parents hate when their children are sick, it's true. Me? I absolutely dread it when our kids are sick, not just because of their general discomfort but also for the added discomfort that comes along with the sensory dysfunction and communication gaps courtesy of autism.

Little Brother has sensory aversions to the textures of things that he puts in his mouth. He won't eat mashed potatoes. He's the only child I know that won't eat macaroni and cheese. Forget about spaghetti and don't you even think about putting sauce on his pizza.

Oh, and, by the way, vomit makes him vomit.

"But what if I puke and the puke makes me puke moo-oore?" he whined to me. "I can't. I just can't handle it."

"Just breathe, Honey," I told him.  "There is only so much puke a stomach can hold."

I personally do not understand these kinds of anxiety attacks. I do not worry to this degree; however, what I do know is the manner in which a thought can strike pure fear in our child, take hold of him and render him crippled in a shockingly short amount of time.  While he hovered above the trash can, my goal was to talk him down from that proverbial ledge.  The last thing we needed was for him to be puking and freaking out. The potential of that situation was downright ghastly.

 I started to have flashbacks to just two weeks prior to when he had a respiratory virus, the only other time this season that he was sick.

"Ewww!" he said with dread. "You aren't going to give me that colored medicine, are you? I hate that medicine. I don't like it. I don't want to take it. I don't."

Unfortunately, that time, I wasn't as quick to understand him as I was yesterday.

"Tough," I told him. "You need it. You're taking it. End of discussion."

"Uhhhhh," he whined.

I hated that. I just hated that. It made me go into drill sergeant mode. No kid of mine was going to wear his pants up and into his armpits whining about the taste of a cap full of medicine.

"Open your mouth and knock it back!" I told him.

He's such a good kid. Really. He really is. He's a people pleaser, which tends to increase his anxiety all the more because he doesn't want to make his true feelings known for fear that he will upset someone. So, as he was ordered, he "knocked it back". And, in a matter of a minute, he promptly barfed it all over his shirt.

I guess I should also mention that our younger son has sensory aversions to strong tastes, and, for the most part, by "strong" I mean anything other than bland. If he food has even a speckle or two of black pepper in it, he has to grab a large glass of water to drink, and he will force it down, fanning his mouth as though he had swallowed a mouthful of Habaneros.

When he vomited that medicine back upon himself, my instinct was shock and frustration. I shouted his name. I asked why he did that. I took off his shirt and directed him to the bathroom where he could promptly clean himself. And, while he was there, I had a moment to reflect, and I realized, geez, it isn't as thought the child wanted to vomit. He had a genuine problem, and the one person who is supposed to be there for him the most just criticized him.

Why did I lose my patience?

When he returned, I apologized to him, explaining that I didn't think about his sensory needs. "But, you kind of yelled," he said. "You acted frustrated and asked why I did that." He looked embarrassed. I felt horrible. No matter how many times I understand it and say it, the fact still remains that my brain is not autistic. I do not instinctively think the way that an autist would.

The challenge for me was to reduce my response time between reacting with my own instincts and adjusting those instincts to allow for what I understand about my children's needs.

"The problem was not yours," I told him. "The problem was mine. It was my fault that I didn't think about the fact that strong tastes truly bother you. I thought that you were being wimpy."

This felt good. It felt right. Yes. I was feeling enlightened. Yet, as I turned to find another form of medicine to ease our son's congested lungs, I saw him standing, just standing there, beside me with a look on his face as if he were in an unfamiliar building with no idea of what direction to take.

He looked at me the way people looked at him.

Son of a gun! My thinking was as foreign to him as his was to me! As the idea washed over me, I just wanted to scoop up our child and hug him. I felt so sorry for the sea of uncertainty in which he must swim nearly all day long. No wonder he wanted to become lost in his legos. Legos are easy to figure out. People, well, that's a completely different story.

I didn't hug him. He doesn't much like that. But I did explain to him that I did not have autism. I did explain to him that my brain does not think like his and that I do not have the sensory aversions that he has. He needed to learn not only how his brain worked but how my brain worked also, because, ultimately, this would be the only way he would learn to navigate society as a grown man.

Sometimes I look at these kids and think, goodness, they have a lot to learn still. Then, I think, goodness, I'm the one who has to teach them! Sigh. It's a steep, daunting learning curve.

"So, Mama?" he asked me later after we'd gone back to our normal routine. He was settled on his sick bed watching television. "Since you don't have the sensory problems that I do, does that mean that the feeling of barf doesn't make you barf?"

"Oh, no!" I said. "I totally agree with you on that one, Buddy. Barf is completely barfy."



  1. Your life is just so full and exciting! I honestly never had to worry about puke being the same in the mouth feeling as mashed potatoes, but now, I might.

    Your level of understanding and perception is beyond my comprehension. Autism has apparently trained your brain I new and very helpful ways.

    Love you, all and keep these things comin GF, we all love learning about things we just don't know!

  2. I guess, in some sense, both you and your sons are strangers in a strange land. I love the way you and your younger son reach out to one another.