July 2008


I’m home – surgery went well, no complications…I’m a little out of it because of pain meds, so I can’t focus for long. Thanks for the prayers and good wishes….

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I have surgery early tomorrow AM, so it may be a while before I post again. I’m sorry for the delay in finishing my posts on discipline and the autistic child…..but I just didn’t get there. Short answer: get rid of (or minimize) the obstacles to learning and communication, and discipline problems are greatly reduced. Then use behavior modification to help with motivation issues – and also pray a lot!  I know that is probably not specific enough to be helpful if you need answers right now to a specific situation, but that’s the best I can do right now. Blessings to you all, and I’ll post again on the other side of the great surgical divide…..lol

In two days I am having a total hysterectomy.  I have spent the past week in a frenzy of what I would call nesting – except that there is no baby birdie coming. In fact, since I’m having all the reproductive parts removed, perhaps I should call it anti-nesting?? I am so glad to get rid of my uterus, I am tempted to call it a party!

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Anyway, I’ve been cleaning, and getting organized, because I will be out of it for a few weeks after the surgery – and then school starts in late August and I have to be ready to teach. I will be a T.A. for  the first half of the British literature survey at our local university. I taught the same course last fall, and I really enjoy it. The course covers English literature from Beowulf to Paradise Lost. So I’m getting the heavy lifting done now – organizing books and files and papers, getting my office in order. And of course, I just returned from a 2-week trip to the U.K. a few weeks ago, so I have also been catching up on laundry, and getting my closet re-organized, etc.  I’m also a musician, and my music area has been a mess, so I’m trying to get that set up as well, so I can just use the instruments without moving or lifting them.

I have a few projects in mind for my recuperation time:

  1. scrapbook the souvenirs from the UK trip – I have all the supplies ready
  2. prepare my course website – fairly easy – I’ll just copy last year’s site
  3. write more in this blog
  4. oh yeah…read like crazy for my exams….
  5. cross-stitch
  6. spend time with my daughter before she moves into her apartment!! (There’s a lot of blog entries to come!)

I am planning to take my comprehensive Ph.D. exams late in the fall, near the end of the semester. But my reading list doesn’t seem to get any shorter, although my time does.  Right now I’m trying to get through The Novel and the Police by D.A. Miller. It’s a really interesting book of criticism of the novel as a genre, based upon the ideas in Discipline and Punish by Michel Foucault. The “police” in the title really refers to the rise of social control, or “discipline”, and its role in the development of the novel, especially in its zenith in the Victorian era. Miller argues for “a radical entanglement between the nature of the novel and the practice of the police” and asks two questions: “How do the police systematically function as a topic in the ‘world’ of the novel? And how does the novel–as a set of representational techniques–systematically participate in a general economy of policing power?” (2).

Michel Foucault argued that social control in Western society moved from the “traditional power” utilized by European feudal systems prior to the 17th century (wielded through shows of power and corporal punishment, imprisonment and torture), to the “disciplinary power” of the secret police, of surveillance, and of internalized social norms such as social disapproval and shame, in more democratic societies. For Foucault, this shift was not necessarily an improvement, in the sense that social control is still control; society still structures and controls the individual, only in more subtle ways. Miller is arguing that the novel (which arose as a form during this power shift) participates in this process of social control by helping the individual to internalize social norms. This would be a good thing, except (as Miller argues) the 19th century novel pretends to eschew discipline; so it is a form of indoctrination or ideological formation – i.e. secret morality police.

I’m still thinking his argument through, but it has a lot of applicability for my interest in the role of shame in 19th century literature….

Hoo boy–If I had the answer to that one, I could make a million bucks. I don’t mean there is NO answer, but THE answer is elusive. If you are reading this because you’re desperate for some help and advice right this moment, don’t despair. Roll your eyes, pull your hair out – but stay with me. Maybe some of what I have to say will help. I’ve been there, believe me – and even though right now we seem to be in an amazingly calm period with Rob, I’m sure we’ll be in the hair-pulling stage again…Rogaine, anyone?

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Disclaimer: I can only write about my experience with our son, who has AS, and only tell you what worked for us; I do not claim that he is a typical Aspie or autistic child. But I think the same principles will apply to others, even to lower-functioning kids, too. I have read a lot and observed many other autistic children.

The first thing I think anyone had to take into account when thinking about disciplining an autistic child is that the word “discipline” means to teach. It does NOT mean punishment, especially physical punishment (spanking, etc). Trying to make an autistic child feel bad about his behavior (or lack of behavior, depending upon the situation) is not helpful. As I said in a previous post, autistic kids are not particularly motivated to please others, and for some of them,  negative attention is rewarding.  And many of them don’t process sensory stimulation well, so yelling or spanking may either hurt way too much, or they may not even feel it. So punishment is counter-productive. Focus on teaching them.

However, as anyone who works with an AS or autistic child knows, they can be notoriously hard to teach. So before I even begin to think about disciplining my child in a given situation, I have to think first, what is getting in the way of what we want him to learn here? What are the potential obstacles to his learning?

For our son, his sensory issues and the accompanying hyperactivity, anxiety and frustration were the first obstacle. Second came his lack of comprehension about what we wanted him to do. Third were communication issues – his acting out behavior had a purpose, and sometimes it was to communicate. We had to teach him to communicate in a more acceptable way. Fourth came his lack of motivation, because he couldn’t necessarily see the importance of what we asked him to do.  I’ll take these in order in subsequent posts; but first,  just let me give you a glimpse of the hell we went through before we had a diagnosis and knew what we were dealing with (ages 2-6).

How do you discipline a tornado?

When our son was between 2 and 6, we called him Mr. Destructo and the Maurauding Baby (to ourselves, of course).  He was in constant, destructive motion: before he could crawl, he rattled his crib until it fell apart; he picked at the mattress until the cover was torn off.  He threw his toys, he pinched other kids. He didn’t crawl long, but went right to running and climbing, after which he was always throwing, banging, tearing, jumping, hitting, and destroying things. In five minutes while I had my back turned trying to teach my daughter something, he would do ALL of this (at age 2): go into the living room, pull the covers off the couches, throw the pillows on the floor, sweep anything on the coffee table onto the floor, break anything breakable; go into our bedrooom, pull the blankets off the bed, empty the garbage can, scatter anything left lying out on the bed, dump drawers into the floor; go into our bathroom and take all the TP off the roll; go into his sister’s room, pull all the toys and books off the shelves, etc. And this would happen 7-8 times a day. Anything that was not locked up or bolted down he threw around. We of course locked everything up and put latches on all the doors, but inevitably we would forget at times during the day. He was also aggressive – banging his head, jumping onto people, hitting or pinching.  And of course, we were in a conservative homeschooling group of Christians (I was homeschooling my daughter Joy – who, btw, was very strong-willed; but she responded to discipline: spanking and time outs worked with her).  We even happened to be taking a class called “Growing Kids God’s Way.” What is God’s Way with a kid like Rob? The course is big on routine and structure. We did all of that with Rob: regular meals, schedule, bathtime, bed. Train them to sit still. Ha! But he made a shambles of it every single day. He needed constant attention and vigilance. But when I tried playing with him, he wouldn’t play. He liked it when I made faces and talked to him, but he wouldn’t play along. Just watch. Same with peek-a-boo. If I sang to him, he wouldn’t do the motions. If we played with blocks, he just wanted to stack them up or line them up – and I couldn’t help.  He just wanted me to watch – but if I talked to him or touched any of them, he would throw them at me, sometimes right in my face, hard.  If I burst into tears he would laugh. I took him to toddler gym class – he wouldn’t participate in the group singing, but loved the physical activities – but had a really hard time waiting his turn. He was always wanting to run and jump and throw things. If I took him to the park, he would run away from me – far away – and never look back or slow down.  He hated playing in sand or water. He would scream if he got wet.

I can just hear Michael Savage now – what a brat! (Maybe if we had tried calling him a moron? Screaming at him)?  So what exactly DID we do? First, what DIDN’T work:

This behavior had started when he could crawl, so at first, I tried saying no and slapping his hand. Hard. It hurt me, for crying out loud. He was just a baby, not even walking. But the next time I turned my back he would be at it again – or even in front of me, as soon as I put him down. By the way, he couldn’t bear to be held much.  We would put him in a playpen and he would pick it to pieces, and learned to climb out before he was a year old. So we tried spanking his hand harder.  When he got to age 2 we tried spanking his butt – hard. With a wooden spoon, or a slipper. First with his diaper on; then, as that failed to deter him, without. Nothing worked. We tried talking to him. Nada. We tried singing, and distracting him. He would not be distracted. We tried time out: he accepted the punishment, but went right back to the behavior as soon as we were finished. I tried having him go around with me, making him pick up (or helping me pick up) and put everything back in place. He would do it, but then destroy something again when I turned my back. Whenever he hurt someone, we gave him time out, and then he had to apologize (after he could talk, which wasn’t until age three). We tried keeping him in his room with a child gate – but you couldn’t leave him out of your sight. He would pick the bed apart, pull thread out of the carpet, kick the walls, bang his head, rattle his crib, throw his toys around the room, try to pull the electrical cords out of the sockets (we had them covered with screw-in plates – so he pulled a cord until it tore and he was holding a live wire). After that, no lights in his room except the ceiling bulb. Then he discovered that he could throw things through the multi-paned window: he liked the sound of breaking glass.  So soon everything in his room was locked in the closet. We gave him one toy at a time. He would destroy it. He soon learned to unlatch the child gate or climb over it.  By then, as you can imagine, we had also tried yelling. We tried prayer. Nothing worked. We also had international students living with us, so we had people coming and going frequently. I asked them to remember to latch the front door – but they would forget – and then he would be off across the street to the park, chasing the pigeons (at age 2)! I was trying to homeschool my daughter, which was a joke, because I couldn’t concentrate on her. He refused to play with toys or occupy himself at all. And you can just imagine the looks from the other homeschooling moms at the meetings, or at play days in the park.

We were at our wits’ end. We couldn’t go anywhere, we lost most of our friends, and of course everyone suggested we weren’t disciplining him enough. We were exhausted, humiliated, angry.  We tried special diets. We went to see a behavioral specialist, and a behavior modification program helped get some of it under control; he was diagnosed with ADHD.  He was put on meds at age 4 – the ADHD specialist said he was the worst he had ever seen.

We had his hearing tested; it was fine. We had him assessed for public special needs preschool, but because he was verbal and obviously intelligent, he didn’t qualify. Fortunately there was a private special needs preschool in the area, so we sent him at age 4. The structure seemed to help him. But he would sometimes cover his ears and scream at certain noises. He threw tantrums about his clothes, refusing to wear some and refusing to take off others. He would refuse to be bathed and screamed and bit about having his teeth brushed.  He didn’t cooperate in the group singing and activities, but he would do the individual ones gleefully. He liked story time. At home, the only time he would sit still was if I read to him – so we spent a lot of time reading together. But he wouldn’t play games, play peek-a-boo, play with toys, play pretend. We managed to get him to kindergarden, where the bad behavior intensified again. We were out of options. Eventually (and it is a long harrowing story) he was diagnosed with autism at age 5and 1/2, and the physical therapist at the school recommended that he be tested for sensory integration issues. She gave me a book to read, and I burst into tears when I read it – it described him exactly. And it told us what to do for him.

Next: Sensory issues and discipline

Although I did not start this blog with the intent to have it be about autism, that seems to be all the traffic that is coming so far. I have an autistic child, age 18; therefore I have a lot of perspective about what it is like to raise a child with autism/AS.  I can also speak to the situation from a Christian perspective. I know how much a diagnosis like this takes over your life as a parent, consumes your family, and shapes your identity.  I am glad to write about autism, but part of the reason I started this blog is to show that my life is about more than just being the parent of an autistic child. This is partially a reaction to the years when my life was completely consumed.  This is necessary, especially when your child is young, and all you are doing is therapy, and educating yourself, and your child’s school, and trying to cope, and trying to get funding for therapies.  But I want this blog to be helpful and encouraging as well, so if there is anything in particular you would like me to write about, drop me a comment. Thanks!!!

In medias res is a literary term meaning a story that starts in the middle.  Characters are introduced before any background is given, and the plot is forwarded by means of flashbacks.

It seemed to me that this is a particularly appropriate title for this blog, for several reasons: first, the very structure of a blog mandates this kind of story-telling; second, this is a blog about life from the perspective of mid-life, and about the experience of mid-life; third, we are raising an autistic child, and he has just entered adulthood, so we are entering a middle stage with him; and fourth, I am pursuing a Ph.D. in English literature so using a literary trope seems apt.  So welcome to the middle of my life.

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