Wyatt is a big boy. He is typically the tallest kid in his class. He wears pants several sizes larger than the age appropriate match up. When he played football, the coach put him in as center most of the time because he is built like a brick. He is big and strong and has poor impulse control.
When he was little, before we had a handle on what was going on inside his head, he managed to break my nose while throwing a tantrum. Then, because I am a slow learner with even slower reflexes, he did it a second time. We made an appointment with a specialist to figure out what was going on. We worried, we’re we just terrible parents who couldn’t control their child? Or was there something deeper going on?
We took Wyatt to see a behavioral specialist at OHSU (Oregon Health Sciences University). We are very lucky to live near such a fabulous facility. If we lived in Idaho, the state where I grew up, our only option for seeing a specialist with her qualifications would have been to make the seven hour drive to Portland. That 1 hour appointment changed everything. It changed the way we thought about parenting and it changed the way we thought about our son.
Let me explain.
Wyatt had just turned three at the time. He still wasn’t talking, so he was perpetually frustrated that he couldn’t communicate his needs. His baby sister, Lily, had just been born. Our little boy, the out of control wild child, turned to mush in the face of his baby sister. No matter how violent he was with himself or us, he was sweet and gentle and calm with the baby. He would touch her face, her skin, press his face next to hers. Their communication was very tactile and they bonded through the touching. You can see it today in how fiercely loyal the are to one another.
When Wyatt was told no, or was scolded for misbehaving, he would throw himself on the ground or throw himself at the nearest wall. He would bang his head against the door over and over and over. We were terrified he would really and truly hurt himself.
One of the things we learned from that appointment is that he isn’t going to hurt himself. Not seriously. He doesn’t have a problem with the pain sensors in his body. They are there and fully functioning. His tantrums, like any other child, were designed to control our behavior. We need to have very clearly defined boundaries that are enforced consistently. I’ll say that every child benefits from this to some degree or another. But with a child with Aspergers, it’s so much more than normal.
We learned how to spot the things in the day that trigger him. We learned how to modify our approach to help him get avoid a melt down. And we learned that sometimes, when his emotions get built up too high, he has to have an outlet. It’s exhausting and devastating to watch your child cry, full body sobs, for 30 minutes straight. All children cry. Lily can produce giant crocodile tears on a moment’s notice. She is theatrical in her efforts. When Wyatt cries, he wants to be left alone. He wants to weep in private, with the door closed. There is no way to comfort him. He doesn’t want to be held or coddled. His body needs to purge its emotional build up, the toxic residue left over from too much stimulus, and it’s a messy, noisy process. And as a parent, it is heart breaking.
During that appointment, we were given tools to help us raise Wyatt, to approach his upbringing in the way that would garner the most positive results. We also were presented with the very real possibility that Wyatt may never function normally as an adult. He may not be able to hold a job. He may never grow up and move out as is the normal course of events for life. We may very well be responsible for him, for his daily care, for the rest of our lives. That’s a tall order, folks.
We worried, when Wyatt started school, about bullies. Because he is big for his age and strong and has terrible impulse control, we worried that he would bully other children. We worried that he would pick on other students who were smaller, or not as smart. And we also worried that he would be bullied. Yes, he is big. Yes, he is smart. But he is also very…quirky. He is the strange kid in class, the one who says strange things. The one who repeats himself three times in the same sentence because if the words don’t go together perfectly the first time, he has to start over until it works out right. He is obsessive with letters and numbers. Loves to read. Loves facts. Loves to recite facts. Loves knock knock jokes. He has an odd sense of humor. And on top of all that, he is socially awkward. He doesn’t understand how to be friends. There is no driving force inside of him that tells him that it’s important to be in the company of others. Given the choice between playing what he wants to play all alone and compromising to play something that he likes but isn’t exactly what he wants in that moment, he’ll choose to play alone every time. And he’ll be mad at the other kids for not being smart enough to know that his game is better.
All of those things sets him apart as the weird kid. And his behavior at school reflected that. He spent an enormous amount of time in the principal’s office last year. To her credit, she is a fabulous woman who is patient and kind and genuinely loves children. She didn’t see Wyatt as a bother or a problem. She saw him as this cool kid who came to see her a lot because he needs a little extra help making the right decision.
It wasn’t until just a few weeks ago that I realized what was causing Wyatt to end up in her office so frequently. After all, I am a product of my upbringing, of this society. Clearly if he would just be good, he wouldn’t be sent there so often. That wasn’t the case for him at all. It takes an extreme effort for Wyatt to be ‘right’ in groups. He has to remember every detail: stand this way, hold your hands like this, talk this way, don’t say that, focus on this, do this assignment. It’s counter-intuitive to the average child. For Wyatt, it’s like being handed the script to a play and being forced to memorize and act it out on the fly every moment of every day. None of it is natural.
Wyatt doesn’t do well with prodding and poking and teasing, either physical or mental. Mental bothers him more than physical, but either will send his mind sideways very quickly. And in your average classroom, there is a lot of prodding and poking and teasing. It is the way of children. And public schools simply aren’t staffed in a way to truly manage that. We don’t invest in teaching future generations kindness. Rather, we bury educators in paperwork and bureaucracy, and that doesn’t leave a lot of time or energy for teaching compassion.
Wyatt is a very quick learner. It didn’t take him long to figure out that the principal’s office was quiet. There were no other children around. He could sit quietly and just relax. In other words, it gave him a break from the poking and prodding and teasing. The near daily trip to the principal’s office was nothing more than a self defense mechanism designed to protect him from sensory overload.
This year, Tara and I are trying something different and my god is it exhausting. I have a ton of respect for teachers. They work HARD. But the results are good. Wyatt is responding well to the individual attention. And earlier this week, I saw something I was fearful I would never see: my son voluntarily socializing with other boys his age. They were laughing and telling jokes together. He looked comfortable and happy. Thinking about it makes me want to cry. It was a beautiful thing to behold.
We are committed to our son, to his growth as an individual, and to his education. And we are in a position where we can protect him to some degree from the impact of bullies. But we can’t (and wont) wrap him in bubble wrap and keep him from the world. Life has bumps and we all need to learn to navigate that as best we can.
Earlier this week, I came across an article online about cyber bullying. Someone posted a picture of a woman who has facial hair and made some inappropriate comments. She has facial hair because her faith requires her not to alter her body in any way. And, because she has the conviction to live what she believes, the hair stays. I admire her personal fortitude. A friend of hers came across her picture and told her about it. She posted a response in the comments section. She was very eloquent and kind. She is the kind of person I would like to have as a friend, facial hair and all.
Here is the story I read. The woman’s name Balpreet Kaur and she inspires me to be a better person. It is my hope as a parent that my children will learn to navigate life with this much grace.