June 16, 2010

Force of Habit

Posted in My Take on Autism tagged , , , , at 9:41 am by autismmommytherapist

Lately, I’ve been spending a lot of time in the closet.

I’m not contemplating a late-in-life team change, although the opportunity for round-the-clock conversation and shopping is enticing at times. No, I’m talking about my son’s latest OCD/perseveration habit. This newest exercise begins with Justin escorting the nearest adult (usually me) to our pantry-cum-toy-closet with a giant push to the small of the back. It terminates in him shoving a faux laptop/plush toy/musical instrument into my waiting hands, vaulting my arm toward the desired space on the correct shelf in the pantry, and then him waiting to see if I can discern the exact angle in which to replace his discarded object correctly. This has been transpiring for a few weeks now, is conducted several times a day when I can’t get him (or some poor unsuspecting rube) to act as my body double, and is an activity I find to be soul-grindingly irritating.

We’re working to rectify the situation of course (that is, when I’m not trying to get both kids on their separate busses in the morning, vehicles that invariably show up within seconds of each other as I stand at the end of my driveway pretending I can still discern the tiny numbers inscribed on the side of each hurtling yellow savior). Most of the time I can instruct Justin to replace the offending item himself, and after I’ve blocked his arm from my coccyx region several times in rapid succession he gets the picture, and dejectedly runs to toy heaven. If that doesn’t work, I can often just gesture toward the waiting shelves, and he’ll get the hint. Sometimes, when pointing and verbal prompts don’t do the trick, I have to physically move him there myself and command him to appease his own obsession, which he often does. I am committed to breaking him of this habit, as I have so many other annoying ones in the past.

And sometimes, when I contemplate what I’m doing, I feel like a big, fat hypocrite.

Over the years, I’ve asked my son to change a lot of his deeply ingrained desires. There was the potty training year(s), where I required my oldest child to stop watering our Berber carpet with his urine two dozen times a day and instead relieve himself in the apparently offensive toilet bowl, a habit which almost tipped the balance in his mother between social drinker and full-blown alcoholic. There was the pleasant habit of his screaming every time I tried to strap him into his car seat from birth to two (except for when he was an infant and slept in it, a habit we thought we might not break until he hit puberty). There was of course my personal favorite, the “pinch the first living thing within reach when denied my way” habit, which I’m proud and grateful to admit his family, teachers and therapists have predominantly exterminated, mostly due to our collective adherence to saying “no” and meaning it.

There have been many undesirable customs over the course of his lifetime, and I’ve made it my mission to stamp out the most heinous whenever possible. Of course, it’s occurred to me that many of these habits are only annoying to those in close proximity to Justin, not to Justin himself. Sure, some of them would prevent him ultimately from integrating himself into society in some fashion, but most just annoy the crap out of his parents. Essentially, on many days, I’m asking him to change to save my sanity, not to better his life per se.

Truthfully, on most days I’m not worthy to ask him to modify his behavior in any way, shape or form. If I had a dollar for every time I’ve sworn to reduce my daily dark chocolate intake (hah!), or said I’d clean up the piles of paper and useless junk I swear reproduce like amoebas on my dining room table, or followed through on my promise to rid my car of garbage that has taken permanent residence since American Idol was still a compelling show, I’d be a wealthy woman. Perhaps I could afford that state-of-the-art group home for adult Justin after all.

Truly, most days I can’t shape my own behavior to save my life.

So, I’m still going to try to exterminate these undesirable routines, the ones that set him apart and grate so noisily on his mother’s last nerve. I’ll attempt to at least reduce them, to employ my knowledge of behavioral techniques so that his actions are more “acceptable”, more mainstream. I’ll try.

But I’m also going to summon a little more compassion for whatever it is in his brain that compels him to do these things, and remind myself that he’s not doing them to evoke a “nails on a chalkboard” reaction from me, that he’s just enacting these behaviors because to him, it feels good. It’s not about me.

It’s never usually about me.

I’m also going to remember how often I fall short in molding my own habits, how so many of my desired regime changes go out the window annually by Valentine’s Day (if I make it that far). Research shows it can take hundreds of trials to alter behavior in a neurotypical human, and perhaps thousands of attempts to shift behavior in autistic ones. What I’m requesting him to do is really difficult, particularly because I’m quite certain he has no understanding of why the action is offensive in the first place.

So, I’m going to give increased compassion toward Justin a valid shot, and perhaps one day I’ll really tackle those procreating piles on my beleaguered dining room table instead of sneakily stuffing them under the buffet when guests come.

Wish me luck, and don’t hold your breath.