When Aggression Strikes… Mama Goes on Strike!

October 5, 2010

This the first of a two-part articles series about the challenges and implications of raising an individual with autism, which was sparked off by the incident described in this article. In the 2nd part, I will go beyond the role of caregivers to address the roles of others in the community and the society at large.

 

 

The Incident

It was 6:30 in the evening – the peak shopping hour at a NTUC hypermart. Navigating swiftly past thronging shoppers, I focused on my simple objective of buying two bags of organic rice cakes and a bunch of bananas. Sebastien, my 14-year-old adolescent with autism, gamely followed me. Both targeted items were his “must-haves” for breakfast…

 

Ten minutes later, I stormed out of the store in a huff, without the rice cakes and the bananas. As I marched away furiously, with my arm wrapped tightly around Sebastien’s, my mind was still reeling over the shock of the scenes that had just unfolded mere minutes ago…

 

There we were, standing in front of the dangling bunches of bananas. While I was taking my time to pick the bunch that was just ripening, Sebastien pre-empted me by picking one willy-nilly and placing it in our basket. Without thinking anything of it, I informed him, “No, this one is better,” while replacing his choice with mine. Immediately, Sebastien grabbed the bunch he had chosen and put it next to mine in the basket. Not unduly perturbed, I picked up his bananas and explained firmly, “No, Sebastien, too many bananas. They’ll go bad and we’ll have to throw them in the trash can.” To my surprise, he grabbed my hand – the one holding the bananas he had chosen – by my wrist forcefully, and shouted, “Bananas!”

 

I was shocked by his reaction. Clearly, I had failed to recognise the importance of the bananas to Sebastien, which might have contributed to the escalation of the situation. Even with this fleeting insight, there was still no doubt that I needed to assert my authority. To let Sebastien dictate by force which or how many bunches of bananas I should buy was a slippery slope that could culminate in his reliance on force to intimidate me into giving in to his wishes.

 

“Let go!” I commanded. He withdrew his hand instantly. “Sit down.” I had used this strategy in the past to disrupt Sebastien’s momentum so that he can calm down. However, just before I could reprimand him, he sprang to his feet, lunged viciously at me and whacked me on my upper arms.

 

Instinctively, I went into emergency mode. With the adrenaline rushing through me, I sprang into action. There was no time to feel distressed, embarrassed or disappointed. Without batting an eyelid, I looked Sebastien sternly in the eye and said, “You are in big trouble. Now you will have no rice cakes and bananas.” I picked up the basket of rice cakes and bananas and left them in a corner. Amidst Sebastien’s protests about the rice cakes and bananas, I escorted him out of the store, with a zillion bystanders looking on. None of them heard my rapidly pounding heartbeats that whispered my suppressed fear. You see, in refusing to buy Sebastien his rice cake and bananas, I risked Sebastien attacking me or someone else! But I did not want to reward Sebastien with the purchases – this was a tiny, but important, victory…

 

Once we were home and the adrenaline had dissipated, I strove to quell the hysteria rising within me. This incident had dealt the most devastating blow to my parenting ego. Not in my worst nightmare could I have imagined that something as simple as a short shopping errand in a familiar place could disintegrate into a fight over something as trivial as an extra bunch of bananas. On paper, there were no ingredients in place to trigger the social disaster that had taken place.

 

As always, I revisited the scenes in my mind, analysing it, play by play, and berating myself for my reactions. Could the incident have been prevented? What could I have done better? In covering all the angles and the possible scenarios, I truly wished that I could have taken on the full blame for the incident. Then I would not have to confront the awful reality – the unmistakable return of Sebastien’s aggression. After keeping it in check for almost four years, Sebastien’s aggressive tendencies have resurfaced in sporadic episodes with his entry into puberty.

 

For me, Sebastien’s recent spate of aggression dredges up haunting memories of a not-distant-enough past when his episodes of aggression were a daily occurrence. Back when Sebastien was seven years old, an experimental diet transformed him into a powder keg that needed little provocation to explode: just a pencil rolling off the tabletop was enough to set him off. It took almost half a year of tight behavioural management to get his aggression under control. To this day, I am still traumatised by the sense of dread that comes from not knowing when the next episode of aggression will strike. As Sebastien was only seven years old at the time, it was not so much the physical pain that bothered me so much as being awashed by the commingling waves of sadness, helplessness and fear.

 

Back then, I had fought to stamp out Sebastien’s aggression so I would not have to deal with the bigger version of an aggressive Sebastien. Still, my worst nightmare has come to pass: In stark contrast to his seven-year-old self, adolescent Sebastien is now a formidable adversary from a physical standpoint. At 14, he has already exceeded my height of 1.65 m. Thanks to our regular exercise regimen that includes a weekly fitness training session, Sebastien is already lifting heavier weights than I am. While I had wanted to cultivate Sebastien’s fitness, his strength, instead of being a cause for celebration, now poses a threat.

 

 

Once we were home and the adrenaline had dissipated, I strove to quell the hysteria rising within me. This incident had dealt the most devastating blow to my parenting ego. Not in my worst nightmare could I have imagined that something as simple as a short shopping errand in a familiar place could disintegrate into a fight over something as trivial as an extra bunch of bananas. On paper, there were no ingredients in place to trigger the social disaster that had taken place.

 

As always, I revisited the scenes in my mind, analysing it, play by play, and berating myself for my reactions. Could the incident have been prevented? What could I have done better? In covering all the angles and the possible scenarios, I truly wished that I could have taken on the full blame for the incident. Then I would not have to confront the awful reality – the unmistakable return of Sebastien’s aggression. After keeping it in check for almost four years, Sebastien’s aggressive tendencies have resurfaced in sporadic episodes with his entry into puberty.

 

For me, Sebastien’s recent spate of aggression dredges up haunting memories of a not-distant-enough past when his episodes of aggression were a daily occurrence. Back when Sebastien was seven years old, an experimental diet transformed him into a powder keg that needed little provocation to explode: just a pencil rolling off the tabletop was enough to set him off. It took almost half a year of tight behavioural management to get his aggression under control. To this day, I am still traumatised by the sense of dread that comes from not knowing when the next episode of aggression will strike. As Sebastien was only seven years old at the time, it was not so much the physical pain that bothered me so much as being awashed by the commingling waves of sadness, helplessness and fear.

 

Back then, I had fought to stamp out Sebastien’s aggression so I would not have to deal with the bigger version of an aggressive Sebastien. Still, my worst nightmare has come to pass: In stark contrast to his seven-year-old self, adolescent Sebastien is now a formidable adversary from a physical standpoint. At 14, he has already exceeded my height of 1.65 m. Thanks to our regular exercise regimen that includes a weekly fitness training session, Sebastien is already lifting heavier weights than I am. While I had wanted to cultivate Sebastien’s fitness, his strength, instead of being a cause for celebration, now poses a threat.

 

Since my return to Singapore with an autistic child, countless people have told me horror stories of adolescents and adults with autism inflicting violence upon their caregivers. These caregivers stoically endure their children’s assaults, resigned to the cruelty of fate that had dealt them a harsh blow in the parenting lottery. Shrugging off these tales of despair, I was confident that this would not be my future. My only response back then was: “Why don’t they fight back?” At the time, I did not give much thought to what “fighting back” would entail.

 

Now, five years later, the dilemma of these caregivers loomed before me. It is time for me to fill in the details of my “fighting back” strategy. Cowed and humbled by my predicament, I can now see that I had procrastinated on this issue. Over the last year, there had already been erratic outbreaks of aggression that I had been too quick to dismiss as aberrative instances, or attribute to my own poor management of the situation. With the benefit of hindsight, I can see a definite pattern of aggression emerging, which has most likely been triggered by his hormonal changes.

 

Despite all his delays, Sebastien has somehow managed to hit the milestone of teenage rebellion on time. His recent gravitation towards aggression also reveals his acute awareness of his growing physical strength and its potential for him to override my parental authority. At this juncture of our homeschooling journey, Sebastien and I face a dangerous crossroad: I need to act before the temptation to abuse his newfound physical strength with physical threats or acts of aggression becomes too alluring for Sebastien.

 

Over the next few weeks, I operated in a state of crisis. Treading on eggshells around Sebastien, I was hyper-vigilant, poised to fend off the next attack. At the same time, I also experimented with diverse combos of behavioural management that were tempered by strategies of compromise, negotiation and letting go. One day, after weeks of experiments and the ongoing reflections, I finally understood my newfound attitude and strategy sufficiently to be able to spell them out to myself. Only then did the butterflies nestling in the pit of my stomach stop fluttering every time I interacted with Sebastien.

 

 

Fighting Back

 

How did I fight back?

 

I fought back… by going on strike! While I am no match for Sebastien physically, I am not without formidable weapons. My power lies not in my fists, but in the resources that I possess as an adult. Going on strike means that I withhold the comforts of life that he takes for granted, the ready availability of my assistance, and even my affection.

 

For instance, I suspended his shower privilege for one night and confiscated his air-conditioning remote control. Instead of providing him with my special homework templates and reviewing his work together with him, I left him on his own for hours to copy out pages of lines chronicling his crime and punishment. Whenever he sought my involvement and help in activities such as cooking his lunch or drawing a picture for him to paint, I did not avail myself. On one occasion, I destroyed his entire weekend of pleasure by refusing to take him to any of his activities for the two whole days. Each time I returned from my expeditions, I rubbed salt on his wound by reminding him of the wonderful activities he was missing out on.

 

By refusing to play my role and disrupting the smooth flow of his routines and activities, I do not seek to shatter, but only to shake his sense of security. My purpose is to evoke a semblance of a world in which I am not the caring and responsive caregiver who is readily available to respond his beck and call. My strategy is a powerful wake-up call to inform him of how good he has it because I am there to help him and provide for him. What we caregivers often forget and our children take for granted is the extent to which we rise to the occasion, each and every day, to cater their every need. Some of us may even have to communicate on our children’s behalf, shield them from the wrath and mockery of the world, and help them to perform tasks that most of their typical counterparts can do unaided. We are what keeps their universe intact, what makes their life tick. And we are the only ones who cherish them with unconditional love.

 

For all that we caregivers do for them and put up with, our children need to value our existence in their lives and treat us with respect. Our unconditional love does have its limits… However unjust life has been to them, we the caregivers are not their punching bags.

 

Very likely, some of you caregivers are already protesting on behalf of your children. They have special needs! How can you blame them when they know not what they do? My first response to that is: Do not grossly underestimate our children’s ability to learn. If our children are savvy enough to use aggression as a means of getting their way, they can be taught that their unacceptable actions will have unpleasant consequences.

 

We are their caregivers. As caregivers, it is our responsibility and our job to teach (to the best of our ability) our children (to the best of their ability). And all the more because of their special needs, our children look to us for the lessons of life that most would not have the patience to teach them.

 

When we allow our children to manipulate and control us with aggression, what message do we send them about themselves, ourselves and life itself? As caregivers, we must decide that we must love our children enough to teach them that hurting themselves or others is not the way to live. We must love ourselves enough not to submit to the unacceptable behaviour of our children. Although autistic people are characterised by their inability to empathise, we caregivers have also failed to teach them about empathy when we do not stand up to them. Teaching our children to treat us with respect is the first lesson of empathy that they should learn. If they cannot respect their caregivers who do so much for them, how can they be expected to care a dint about others?

 

 

Sadly, at the time of this writing, I cannot announce that my strategy has vanquished Sebastien’s aggression. In fact, I have come to recognise that I have entered a new phase of my caregiving journey in which aggression, however sporadic, is a challenge that I will have to grapple with.

 

However, I will not mourn for the loss of those idyllic, aggression-free years, nor will I lament the resurrection of the aggression that I had once thought I had extinguished forever. Though I confront this reality with a tinge of sadness, it is also accompanied with a perverse sense of relief. For years, without admitting to myself, the fear of Sebastien’s aggression resurfacing had always had a stranglehold on me. With my strategy in place, I am no longer afraid. Rather, in fashioning my strategy of “going on strike”, I acknowledge and inform my son of my caregiving limits.

 

We caregivers often go too much out of our way to satisfy the needs and wants of our children. But the more we give them, the more they expect of us. By doing more than we should, we feed their unrealistic expectations of us. How many of us have run on this treadmill, only to discover that it would never end, however hard we run, however exhausted we get?

 

By going on strike, I announce to Sebastien that I cannot, nor do I wish to, be the super caregiver and saviour who can save him from everything. While I can do my best to teach him about right and wrong, he will need to face the unpleasant consequences of his actions should he choose to pursue the wrong path. He cannot continue to assume that he can do whatever he wants and that my protective wings will always be there for him to take refuge. One day, they won’t be enough; and on another, they won’t be there. And

these are the hard realities of life from which I cannot shield him.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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