I sat at the table in my pajamas, a warm cup of tea in my hand, watching my son through the window as he headed off to the school bus stop. When he reached the corner he pulled his eyes away from the book he was reading long enough to check for cars before crossing, then he walked on in the early morning sunshine, oblivious to the fact that at fifteen years old he has a mother who still occasionally spies on him.
I was happy. We were only a few weeks into the school year and things were going really well. After school each day my son would come home relaxed and cheerful. He’d inhale an impossibly large amount of food, then start his homework. I’d check his daily organizer and find it neatly filled out. The school’s parent-snooper website showed his work was all turned in and his test scores were high. I’d ask him about what he did at lunch time and he could tell me the name of a friend he’d talked to. For parents of typical kids maybe times like this were common, but for a parent of an Asperger’s child, this peaceful, productive, happy calm was the product of many years of struggle and tears.
I thought back to when he was little – first grade, blond hair, chubby little cheeks and amazing blue eyes. He was a beautiful child, but not an easy one. Every day I’d wait by the school’s gate to retrieve him from his teacher, making sure to catch him as he came out so he wouldn’t keep running and end up in the busy parking lot. I knew there was an even chance I’d have to spend a few minutes chatting with his teacher, or if the day had been particularly interesting, longer than that. I’d wipe any tears of his that needed wiping, then hand him the bag of snacks I’d brought just for that reason – something to get him to sit down, calm down and stay occupied while the teacher and I talked about things like the best ways to teach him that he had to stay on campus during the school day even if he could figure out how to escape. Or how to complete an art project without throwing a screaming fit out of frustration, or to come back in from recess by himself without someone having to go hunt him down and retrieve him, or how to deal with whatever other difficulty they’d run across that day. Then my boy and I would drive off for home where we’d spend three to four hours at the homework table. It was three to four hours of “Because the teacher gets to make the rules and you have to follow them, whether you like them or not,” and “Calm down, I’ll help you learn this. Let’s try it again,” and “You write down one answer, then tell me the next one and I’ll write it down for you.” It was equal parts negotiation, creative teaching, bribery and tough love. He wasn’t an easy child and it wasn’t an easy year, but we got through it.
And we got through each of the school years that came after it. They each had their own set of challenges and none of them were easy. But now that I thought about it, I realized each of them had been a little easier than the one before. He had learned to read and then he could do it on his own. He discovered that the way to get other kids to play with him wasn’t to grab them by the arm and drag them to the sandbox. He learned how to write a sentence, then a paragraph, then an essay. He figured out that math was something he could learn if he calmed down, tried again and asked for help when he needed it. My impromptu parent-teacher conferences dropped from every day to a few times a week to once every few weeks. And the phone calls from school that had given me so many years of stomach aches finally had blessedly stopped.
I was happy as I watched my now six foot tall son round the corner to the bus stop. We’d had our challenges, but he could do more now that I’d ever thought would be possible. He was making it. He was still socially interesting, but he was competent, calm and independent. He was going to be okay.
Just before noon the phone rang. “Mrs. Zupke, I’m your son’s school counselor. Do you have a moment?”
My heart sank. There were a lot of different reasons why the counselor might call me, but from the tone of his voice I didn’t think this chat was going to be about missing paperwork or class schedule changes. I was right. Things weren’t going well at school.
The happy, cheerful teenager who came home every afternoon and told me his day at school had been “fine”, apparently had a vastly different definition of the word “fine” than the school did. Things weren’t fine and his teachers were losing patience. They knew he had autism and they were doing a great job of working with him, but his behavior was getting out of hand. It was impacting his classmates’ ability to learn and his teachers’ ability to teach. Things weren’t horrible, but they needed to be addressed.
As much as I’d liked to have argued that my son’s disability was the cause of his poor behavior and that my sweet boy shouldn’t be blamed, I couldn’t. For one, I knew he was capable of better behavior – we’d been through all this last year. But also I knew that in a few short years he’d graduate from high school and go out into the real world. Though the school could tolerate his behavior now, society wouldn’t later. Behavior that leads our Asperger’s kids to the principal’s office while they’re still in school can lead them to the courthouse when they’re adults. While I wanted to downplay what the school’s counselor had told me, I knew that to help my son most we needed to deal with his behavior now.
It wouldn’t be fair for me to tell you exactly what my son had been doing that got him into so much trouble. It’s bad enough that his mother spies on him, he doesn’t need me to broadcast all his difficulties and mistakes to the world. I will say that it wasn’t something that would have gotten him arrested. In fact, on the school’s scale of one to ten it probably ranked around a four, especially for a special needs kid. Not horrible behavior, but something a parent needed to know. But on my stomach ache scale it ranked a solid 8.5. Not because what he had done was so bad, but because up until then I’d thought he’d been doing so well.
In that half hour I’d spent on the phone with the counselor, my stress level had been reset – maybe not all the way back to where it was in first grade, but it was pretty high. I mean, yeah, the beginning of last school year had been rocky, but my son had gotten his act together. By Christmas things had settled down a lot and he’d been doing really well. Now he was doing the same things he’d gotten in trouble for last fall. I’d thought we were through with all that. I thought he’d learned those lessons already, but apparently he hadn’t.
As I tried to figure out what was going on in my son’s head, to understand why he thought it was okay to act this way now, I started thinking of other challenges we’d overcome. Maybe we hadn’t really solved those problems, either. Perhaps we’d just put them to bed for a while, circumstances had changed and those problems hadn’t come up again. Yet. Was I really judging his abilities accurately? I mean, I let him walk to the bus stop himself this year. Many times I’d seen him quit reading his book long enough to safely cross the street – enough times that I thought he’d gotten that skill down cold. But what if I was wrong? What if watching for cars was something he only remembered to do most of the time? 95% of the time is pretty good odds unless you’re talking about dodging cars.
In the next couple of hours I’d come up with at least ten different ways he could get himself hurt or in trouble if the lessons I’d thought he’d already learned hadn’t stuck. When he was little we’d spent a lot of time talking about why it wasn’t okay to touch girls’ hair even if it was really pretty. It had been years since that problem had come up but now he was in high school where touching girls took on all new meanings, especially if they felt threatened. And while saying the wrong thing to a kid in the bathroom in elementary school was bad, it wasn’t nearly as dangerous as saying it to a high school football player. Besides, we’d worked so hard. Hadn’t we made any progress?
By the time my son got home I was pretty unhappy. I kept calm as I talked to him about his actions at school; I was firm when I explained the behavior expected of him and why it was expected; fair in specifying the consequences of his actions; and encouraging when he realized the impact his behavior had on the people at school and what they might think of him now. I kept it together on the outside and did what I needed to do, but inside I was a scared mommy who knew she was failing her child and was running out of time before her failures caused him serious consequences. I wasn’t teaching him fast enough or well enough. We weren’t getting anywhere and the time I had left before he was in the real world was getting shorter and shorter.
Was I overreacting? In retrospect, yes. The beginning of the school year always throws him for a loop. I should have known that he’d hit a few bumps in the first weeks. He always does and we’ve always managed to work them out. And it’s not like I’m new to parenting special needs kids. I know it’s an emotional roller coaster ride. During good times we parents feel great – like our kids are really making progress and that eventually they’ll do just fine. Then we hit another roadblock and it feels like the rug has been pulled out from under us. We fall right back into being scared and worried. We never know if we’ll be able to help our children overcome the latest difficulty. We worry that we’ve hit their limits for learning or that we’ve run out of therapy or medicinal options. Just because we’ve made it through the previous challenges doesn’t mean we’ll be able to make it through this one.
All my emotions had been very human. They’re something we all feel, no matter how long we’ve been doing this job. But you know what I discovered? Even though unexpected difficulties still throw me for a loop, I’m getting better at dealing with them. Sure I panicked. But it was a controlled panic. I was able to do what I needed to do. I got the information I needed, helped my son see the error of his ways, gave him more ideas for coping with difficulties and put a reward/discipline program in place. Even though emotionally I was still acting the way I had ten years earlier, now I had more tools to help me move forward.
So how did it turn out for my son? I got in contact with each of his teachers and discussed his behavior. Yes, he had been misbehaving, however not to the degree he had in years past. His ability to manage his emotions, calm himself and get back on task have improved. He’s learning how to manage his behavior and slowly, very slowly getting better at it. We still have a long way to go, but if he keeps maturing I can envision a future for him that includes getting through college and later holding a job. Despite his setbacks, my son really is making progress. And you know what? I think am, too.