27: What I Didn’t Expect

27: What I Didn’t Expect

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: Raising Kids on the Spectrum

What I Didn’t Expect

The cyclone derives its power from a calm center. So does a person.

~Norman Vincent Peale

“This isn’t what I signed up for,” I thought, struggling to hold onto a five-foot nine-inch thirteen-year-old. I had my training as a red belt in Tang Soo Do and determination on my side. He had four inches more height, plus rage, working to his advantage. It was an even match, but it wasn’t on the dojang floor, and it wasn’t about winning points. This was my son, in my living room, and if I let go he would hurt himself or me. I kept a safe hold on him, and cried.

Fifteen years before, when my first son was born, I read all of the “what to expect” books. They never seemed quite accurate to me, because Nicky hit all of the milestones well ahead of what was considered typical. Without another child for comparison, I had no way to know whether the books were wrong or if I had a precocious child.

I pulled those same books off the shelf when I had Kyle two years later. Again, the books missed their mark for us, but this time it was different. Kyle fell far behind all of the developmental milestones, and by the time he was two years old, we knew why — Kyle had autism.

Autism wasn’t in those books, or if it was, it was only a passing mention. It wasn’t something I was supposed to expect.

Nowhere did they say anything about an endless stream of doctors and therapists, specialized classrooms in school, or an array of unusual behaviors. The books didn’t tell me my child might kick out the window screens and run away, or laugh uncontrollably for no apparent reason, or become hysterical if something didn’t go as planned. They certainly never warned me my child would try to hurt me or cause himself harm.

By the time Kyle was six or seven, I had learned a great deal about autism. I read a lot, spoke to doctors and parents, and had a pretty good idea of what was typical for a child like mine. I had come to terms with this new concept of what would pass for “normal” in my household, and I thought I finally knew what to expect.

Then one evening, during a meltdown, Kyle put his fist through a window. Fortunately, the result was only a few minor cuts, a lot of tears, and a rare complete sentence. “I’m sorry, Mommy.”

A good cleaning and some Band-Aids were all the medical treatment Kyle needed, but the next time we visited the pediatrician’s office, I mentioned the incident to one of the doctors there.

She nodded and said, “It seems most children with autism do that at some point.”

The books told me when Kyle should smile, walk, and talk, but somehow they overlooked the part about putting his fist through a window.

Meltdowns had long been an issue, but visual aids and schedules helped with some of the problem behaviors. Even so, unexpected frustration could launch him into sudden bouts of aggression. Walls were his first target, and it wasn’t long before I became exceedingly good at drywall repair.

It also didn’t take me long to realize aggressive meltdowns were about to present a very real danger. While Kyle missed significant cognitive milestones, he was above average height for his age. He was also heading for the hormonal roller coaster of puberty. Teaching him self-control would take time — more time than we had left before his size and aggression could overpower me.

Soon, I had a sweet, loving giant who occasionally exploded into a rage, and, as a divorced mom, I had to manage him mainly on my own.

Seeking assistance, I found classes designed to help parents deal with many aspects of autism — potty training, getting their children to eat better, basic behavior management strategies — but not one that taught parents how to keep themselves safe and prevent their children from hurting others or self-injuring. Teachers received formal training on this, but parents were on their own.

I sought other options, and ended up studying the Korean martial art of Tang Soo Do. My instructor helped me modify techniques to contain my son during an aggressive meltdown without hurting him or allowing him to hurt me. I learned to block his strikes when he tried to hit, how to escape when he would grab my arm and dig in with his fingernails, and how to use safe holds when necessary, like the one I used that day in my living room. I discovered that applying these techniques also helped me calm Kyle more quickly. My goal was still to help him learn to overcome this behavior, but in the meantime, this allowed me to keep both of us, and anyone else around us, safe.

I never expected Tang Soo Do to be a useful parenting skill.

People who spoke openly about therapies and special diets tended to avoid the subject of aggressive meltdowns, and it makes me wonder why parents are left to learn the hard way about something so important. Why are we unprepared for that gap between the start of aggressive behavior and the glorious day our children learn self-control?

Maybe we’re afraid that mentioning it will give our children with autism a poor public image. Maybe we feel bad about the idea of putting our children into safe holds, or we’re afraid of what people will think about us. Perhaps we just don’t want to admit to ourselves that our beautiful, wonderful, sweet children can have moments of violence, lashing out at the people who love them most. So we struggle and cry and keep our silence, and other parents never learn what to expect.

Just like with those books I read, not everything can be predicted. Every child is different, and I hope yours will never be aggressive . . . but it could happen. So what should you expect?

Expect broken windows, bad days, lots of stress, and Tang Soo Do lessons. Expect challenges that change from day to day and year to year. Then expect all of the joys, happiness, and unconditional love those books did mention, along with triumphs big and small.

Expect to grow as a person and as a parent, and to find strength you never knew you had to deal with problems you never could have anticipated. Expect to have your own stories, good and bad, and that eventually you’ll be able to look back at most of them with a sense of humor you couldn’t have imagined at the time. Then share your stories with the rest of us, even the ones that seem hard to tell, because all of us, as parents of children on the spectrum, need to know we’re not alone.

Most of all, know that if your child is anything like mine, you can expect far more hugs and smiles than meltdowns and broken windows.

~D.M. Rosner

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