Did you ever have one of those nights?
We had one the other day.
I’ve been trying to break it down in order to pinpoint when it all went wrong, and I haven’t really come to any conclusions, but I figure maybe if I write it down things will become more clear.
I think it started early in the day. Kimball and the girls were playing with the dress-ups (that’s great), and he found a little piece of black silky cloth. I think it is some part of a pirate costume or something. Anyway, many people know that people with autism tend to fixate on just one thing. The Brain Balance people have instructed us to keep changing up things for Kimball so that he can’t fixate on any one thing. So when he fixated on clocks, we took them off the walls, when he fixated on his fishing pole, we took that away as well. Some days it feels like we just keep taking one thing after another away from him, only to find that five minutes later he has found something else. Well, on this day it was the little piece of black silky cloth.
He would hold it up like a flag (another of his obsessions), or twirl it around (another of his obsessions). I think it wore on my nerves and I kept telling him to put it away, I think I even took it away a couple of times, but he kept finding it. Argh.
So then in the night we were all feeling hot (our house has no air conditioning), and tired (like we do at the end of most days), and there was Kimball with that annoying piece of black silky cloth, spinning and twirling it around …
OH! And the other thing that Kimball has started doing is telling me “No!” He NEVER used to do that. It was one of his best qualities. He was sometimes passive aggressive, but never … what do you call it? ACTIVE aggressive? So after flat-out telling me a couple of times in the day that he would not obey me, I was pretty close to the end of my rope. I told him to put the piece of cloth away. He said “No.” I tried to grab it away from him, and realized that with all of the pushups and sit-ups that Kimball has been doing over the past few months, he has gotten quite strong. We got into this little tug of war, and I finally won and immediately (but calmly) told him to go to his room. He again told me “No!” So I grabbed him and pulled him down the stairs, at which point he went totally ballistic. He was crying and screaming and kicking and telling me that he didn’t want to go downstairs. Like I said, he is MUCH stronger than he used to be, so getting him down the stairs was no small task. I put him in his room and told him to stay there.
Unfortunately, Kimball’s room is in our still-unfinished basement and does not have a door. By now there was no way that he was going to just stay in there. I told him he had to stay in the room for one minute. He said no and came out. I told him if he didn’t stay for one minute, he would have to stay for two. He kept coming out, and one minute turned into two, then three, then four, then five, then six! The problem, it turns out, is that Kimball is afraid of the basement. By now, he had worked himself up so much that there was no way he was going to stay down there. So I gave him an alternative. I put him upstairs in the bathroom and told him that if he did not stay there for the full six minutes, he would miss dinner (like most days were having eggs and Kimball loves eggs). On the other hand he could stay there, calm himself down, and then come and eat with us (which I reminded him over and over was what I wanted). He kept crying (screaming really) and telling me that he wanted his eggs. I told him to wait six minutes, I was practically begging him to stay in the bathroom. As calmly as I could I told him, “Kimball, I love you. I want you to come in here and eat dinner with us, but if you do not stay in that bathroom and calm down you will not get dinner tonight.” I thought it would work.
Kimball came out of the room again, and I told him “That’s it. No dinner.” I think that he was as shocked at the consequence as I was earlier at his defiance. It felt like the ultimate battle of wills, and I was desperate not to lose because I felt like if I lost this battle I would lose his respect and trust. So that was it. No dinner for Kimball. He sat in the hall and cried and cried and screamed and cried. There was also some door pounding and kicking at some point.
Then Anahí, sitting at the table eating her eggs started laughing at Kimball. Then Alicia turns and slaps Anahí across the face. A real-live slap. So then I picked up Alicia and took her downstairs to her room. She cried and screamed and cried and screamed, but that was it for her. No apples for dessert. It was a total nightmare. By now Ian was crying as well (I have no idea why, probably because everyone else was crying).
The best part of all of this, was that all of the windows in the house were open. The neighbors got to hear the entire thing.
In the end, I was able to talk to Kimball, let him know that I love him, and things settled down, but my and Betty’s nerves were shot. After everyone was asleep Betty and I stepped outside into the cool night air just to take a breath. Our neighbor was outside.
“Sorry you had to hear all of that.” I told her.
She was very kind and actually complimented us on how we had kept calm and steady throughout it all. That made me feel pretty good.
Then Betty and I did something we have done a hundred times during our marriage when stress levels are high. I ran to the store and got a pint of Häagen Dazs ice cream (Caramel Cone is our favorite flavor), and we sat down to watch a movie. The same neighbor lent us the film The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, and I really enjoyed it. I especially appreciated the Life magazine motto:
To see the world, things dangerous to come to, to see behind walls, draw closer, to find each other, and to feel. That is the purpose of life.
In the end, Kimball did not get his dinner, and Alicia did not get her apples. They both learned that there are limits and that there are very real consequences for their behavior. They also learned that Betty and I will stick to our guns. But I’m glad that we were able to maintain our calm, and we were even able to end the night on a peaceful note. I was able to hug and kiss both kids before they fell asleep and to tell them that I love them. They know that I don’t like to discipline them, but that I will.
So when we write about how awesome Brain Balance is, and how great the progress is, know that it comes at a price. Our “perfect" little kids are developing and learning about and testing their agency in a way they never have before. It’s scary, but it is exhilarating as well. We could have let them stay in their world where they never took a step out of line, but that is no way for them to grow. I trust that the Lord will guide Betty and me to know how to help them navigate and use their agency well. He’s got to. And in the end, they will be better for it.
One final note: I am well aware that many parents routinely use food as either punishment or reward for their children. Some parents even intentionally make their kids go hungry as a way of making them "suffer" for their actions. This has never been nor ever will be the case for us. Along with being bad physically for the children, it can make them grow up with an extremely negative psychological relationship with food. There is a differnece between making your kids go hungry so that they can "suffer" for their actions, and calmly and lovingly teaching your children that their actions have natural consequences. I suppose that writing this on the internet is opening me up to criticism, and I'm sure some of it will come, but my intention here is to share what we are going through with our children. That means the good and the tough. This ... was tough.