Rob had many obsessions when he was little – many were destructive, and some were dangerous: throwing things through windows, making “spiderwebs” with string, tying knots in rope, getting knives from the kitchen and hiding them in his closet so he could “look” at them, picking at the electrical outlets. But his most annoying obsession was his insistence upon dumping out the contents of any uncovered drink, and throwing it on me if I was nearby. He did that for 3 years – from age 2 until age 5, until the incident I am about to relate. This particular incident happened when he was five, before we had a diagnosis or knew what we were dealing with. But I think it is instructive about the types of discipline that work with autistic children.

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I have no idea where Rob got the idea that cups needed to be empty if they were uncovered.  He had many such apparently meaningless “rules.” At home, we all learned to drink from sippy cups or plastic lidded cups.  If by chance we forgot to do so, and he saw an uncovered cup, he would dump it upside down. This was inconvenient at home, but downright embarrassing in public.  My MIL insisted on taking us to lunch at a restaurant. I warned her about the dumping, but she didn’t listen – she was still under the impression that the problem was my not disciplining him enough.  She requested a glass of water. Rob went for it immediately.  She caught his hands and told him no – so he darted to the neighboring table and dumped out one of their water glasses on the floor.  My MIL was mortified and I was angry – so I took Rob and left the restaurant. I spanked him outside before we left – but spanking did not deter this behavior. The next time he had the opportunity, he would do it again.

Thank goodness for McDonalds’, where all the drinks were covered!! But even then he would occasionally see someone with an uncovered drink. He had a radar for them. I remember walking into McDonald’s once, and out onto the play place area. I was holding Rob’s hand tightly, scanning the room for any unsuspecting patron with an uncovered drink. But he jerked his hand from mine, darted to a table quick as a flash and dumped a lady’s uncovered drink on the floor.  She looked at me (understandably) as if I were the worst mother in the world. I apologized, explained he was autistic (she didn’t look as if she believed me), and offered to replace her drink. Thank goodness for free refills!

Fortunately, he didn’t throw liquids on anyone else. Just me. In my face. Every time he got the chance. In  public, I learned to not have a cup anywhere near me (or near him); but at home I would forget, or his sister would forget and leave a cup uncovered. His favorite time to throw drinks on me was while we were brushing teeth – mine, his, or his older sister’s. We used a small cup for rinsing, and if I got distracted and put it down for a second, Rob would grab it and throw the water in my face (sometimes he would even grab it out of my hand right after I filled it). The same happened whenever I forgot and left the lid off a cup, or took the lid off my iced tea to add sweetener. It was amazing how fast he was. It only took a nano-second for him to grab the drink and throw it on me. Fortunately he never did this with hot drinks, just cold. But this happened daily, sometimes 2 or 3 times a day, repeatedly, for 3 years!

What didn’t work: I tried spanking him, talking to him, giving him time outs, yelling at him, ignoring him (although ignoring having water thrown on me was hard -I couldn’t help but flinch or make a face). Nothing deterred him. He would throw the drink on me, and then run away laughing, doing his on-his-toes happy dance.

One day it happened one too many times. I was brushing his teeth, and I had filled the cup, when he grabbed it from my hand and threw it on me.  He danced off, laughing, to his room. I had had enough! I filled the cup with cold water, marched into his room, and threw the cup of water in his face.  He screamed (he hated his clothes being wet). When he screamed from shock and anger, I yelled at him – That’s what it feels like to me too, and I don’t like it either! He stared at me for a moment – and I saw comprehension dawn in his face.  Then, I’ll never forget what he said: Oh Mommy, I didn’t know it felt like that for you. I’m sorry, and I’ll never do it again!.

And he never did – to me or anyone else.

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This was one of the many times in my life where I got a glimpse of the “real” Rob – I thought – he’s in there! He does have a conscience – it’s just really hard to get to. I’m not proud I lost my temper. But I learned a valuable lesson that day about understanding Rob, that helped me later on after his diagnosis with autism: He was not being mean. He thought my reaction was funny. When he was able to understand how it made me feel, he felt remorse and sympathy.

P.S. I still have no clue why he did this – how he got the idea, or why he was so focused on it. One thought is that we gave him nesting cups to play with in the bathtub (although not after he started this). If anyone has any experience like this and can shed some insight, let me know.

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A note about Behavior Modification: I am not recommending my approach in this situation to anyone. But I think it demonstrates that immediate, natural consequences for behavior are effective with autistic children; the question is, what does an autistic child consider “natural consequences”?  At that point we were using some elementary forms of behavior mod with Rob.  I knew about extinguishing bad behavior by ignoring it, and I knew about reinforcing positive behavior; but I didn’t know about shaping his behavior through approximate steps, so it didn’t make sense to me to reward him for the times he didn’t throw water on me.  At the time it seemed wrong to reward him for NOT behaving badly – I was afraid it would remind him to act out more often. There are plenty of sites about how to use behavior modification, so I won’t go into it here. But we did move increasingly to a behavior modification approach as he got older, and as we got wiser.

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