Sebastien's season of adolescence can be described, to borrow the brilliant lines of Charles Dickens, as “the best of times”..., and unfortunately, the “worst of times”.
On the one hand, my 15-year-old has turned into a young man with the initiative to perform many household chores: preparing his own meals, washing the dishes, sweeping and mopping the floor, and taking care of the laundry, etc. With the support of his functioning training coach, Coach Sandy Snakenberg, Sebastien has also begun to learn how to use various types of clamps to put weights on barbells at the gym. On the artistic front, Sebastien has been scaling new heights of creativity in his bold experimentation with colours and textures to produce one-of-a-kind paintings. At times, they even offer a rare glimpse into the emotional tumult that Sebastien will unlikely articulate in words.
On the artistic front, Sebastien has been scaling new heights of creativity in his bold experimentation with colours and textures to produce one-of-a-kind paintings. At times, they even offer a rare glimpse into the emotional tumult that Sebastien will unlikely articulate in words.
On the other hand, the competent and creative Sebastien also has a dark side. Fuelled by his raging hormones, Sebastien is engulfed in a sea of heightened sensory cravings, impulses, compulsions, and obsessions. With his heightened sensory perceptions, Sebastien has become obsessed with the dramatic transformation of his body, an addictive wonderland that offers endless hours of exploration. For several months, Sebastien was so ‘attached’ to his penis that he literally had only one hand free to perform tasks. In his other waking moments, Sebastien combed through every inch of his body to identify every hair that he wanted removed. One of the startling outcomes of his hair obsession was the shaving of his eyebrows! Then, lately, he has begun to ‘mark’ selected acquaintances and places with his finger dabbed with his own saliva. Worst of all, his once-dormant aggression returned with a vengeance to serve as the muscle to back up his will to do anything he desires…
As you are beginning to sense, the list of Sebastien's unpleasant, disturbing, or troubling behaviours could go on ad nauseum. There is not one aberrant behaviour that truly takes centrestage; rather, it is a full panoply of them blending into one another in a nightmarish carnival of deviant behaviours.
What has ultimately helped to move me out of my anger at Sebastien is my gradual recognition that his behaviour is not completely willful; to some extent, he is unable to help himself. The season of adolescence has intensified Sebastien’s heightened sensory sensitivities. In essence, he has turned into a creature of seemingly insatiable sensory cravings and impulsive tendencies. Though the behavioural management approach that had conditioned Sebastien to exercise a measure of self-restraint still plays an important role, it may be inadequate, at times, against the sheer power of the hormones wreaking invisible havoc within him. Having observed at close hand several of Sebastien’s outbursts of overexcitement, I have to admit that the prospect of rewards and their denial cannot always counter the intensity of the spur of the moment.
In some ways, Sebastien’s sensory profile has reverted to that of his younger self, one that is characterised by heightened senses and hyperactivity. For instance, as with his younger self, Sebastien could become overly aroused by rushing trains. The difference is that these characteristics are amplified several times over in an adolescent. A nine-year-old jumping up and down and yelping in the public space can be construed as a mild disturbance. In contrast, a fifteen-year-old doing the exact same thing (amplified by ten times the energy) would be understandably deemed a public menace, requiring the intervention of authorities. Unfortunately, all that the untrained employees and police authorities would see is a terrifying adult-sized man yelping and jumping, when Sebastien was really just behaving like an overly excited autistic boy. Their instinctive response to restrain him is very likely to escalate and worsen the situation. That a young man’s socially inappropriate expression of his excitement at a rushing train could culminate in an act of aggression against train staff who attempt to restrain him is not just a hypothetical tragedy to me. We had already stared down the barrel of such a potential tragedy at the Ang Mo Kio MRT station on one occasion.
Thus, as the season of adolescence stretches towards its indefinite end, with experiences of one challenging event after another, my frustration and rage have morphed into saddened acceptance. I know now that Sebastien, too, is experiencing a titanic struggle within himself – the battle between what I ask of him and what his compulsions are impelling him to do.
Herein lies the crux of the dilemma: at the age of 15, Sebastien is an adolescent who is growing up and straining to assert his own identity, while also, in many ways, a young boy lacking the full mental capacity to grasp the full implications of his actions. Yet, because of his autistic nature, Sebastien would have to make sense of his dramatic transformation and his conflicts with mainstream society pretty much on his own. Ultimately, he would have to curb his insatiable sensory cravings and regulate the intensity of his sensory impulses. He would have to limit his desire to impose his vision on the world, in which every trash can is tucked up against the wall, billboards are perfectly aligned, and stickers/labels are removed from every surface.
Having struggled with my own demons and taken a number of wrong turns in my own misguided youth, I know that what he is going through is not easy. If I were in Sebastien’s body and functioning with his mind, I seriously doubt that I would fare that much better…
My awakening to these painful realities constituted the beginnings of my bumpy reconciliation with Sebastien. It has been almost a year since the start of my battle with Sebastien the Adolescent. Having operated like an embattled warrior perpetually on guard in a war zone, I no longer indulge in the luxury of mourning for Sebastien, the once-compliant and manageable child. This image has become a faded picture in my memory.
Though Sebastien’s adolescence is still characterised by tiring ups and downs, he has made significant progress, though we are far from being out of the woods. There are still days when I am clenching my fists in rage, crying my eyes out, and wondering how to take the next step. I wish I could say that I have found all the answers to the autism adolescence challenge; instead, all I can offer for now are some of the strategies that I have found to be effective in helping me to manage Sebastien’s behaviour through these tough times.
1. Concocting an alternative sensory diet…
In acknowledging the significance of Sebastien’s sensory changes and considering sensory solutions, I have sought to suspend my persona as a distressed and mortified mother (as much as possible). Instead, I have opted to approach him as a curious and dispassionate researcher. Thus, when I am observing Sebastien to identify possible solutions, he is more a research subject than my son. This ‘distancing’ has been instrumental in restoring my emotional equanimity and enabling me to look out for solutions.
These are the questions that have guided me in my quest to concoct a customised sensory diet to meet Sebastien’s needs:
Though the task of identifying socially appropriate substitutes may seem daunting initially, it can be achieved with observation, experimentation (and more observations), acceptance of compromises, and sheer luck.
Below are a few sensory regulation strategies/tools that I have found to be effective in controlling Sebastien’s sensory difficulties:
Pockets and headphones: Sebastien’s compulsive need to tug/hold onto his penis is easily one of his top three most disturbing behaviours. As this behaviour bordered on indecency, it was difficult and stressful to travel with Sebastien in public. I was constantly staring at his hand in the crotch region in a heightened state of anxiety, not knowing what he might decide to do with his favourite ‘buddy’. However, after some observation, it occurred to me that he could put one hand in the wide pocket of his baggy shorts and tug his penis ‘under cover’. To this day, I am still amazed that such a simple compromise solution could usher in a truce in our months-long ‘penis battle’.
But a greater break-through was yet to come. I noticed that Sebastien’s tendency to tug at his penis was often offset by his need to cover his ears to cope with the sounds of its surroundings, especially in the outdoors. Though he would sometimes tilt one ear towards his shoulder to cover it and use his sole available hand to cater to the other, he would occasionally let go of his penis to cover his ears with both hands.
Although I was curious about the ear-penis relationship, I still had not found a way to capitalise on it until the day I offered Sebastien my headphones to listen to music. This was something I did from time to time, though he had lost interest in listening to music with headphones since he was eight. However, that day, Sebastien was completely hooked! Since then, he would request to “listen to music” whenever we left the house.
For me, my chance discovery of headphones as a sensory tool has enabled me to kill two birds with one stone. On the one hand, Sebastien discovered an alternative, but sufficiently compelling, source of stimulus that partially distracted him from his obsession with his penis. Even though he does not wear headphones in the house, his tendency to tug his penis has also diminished significantly. Once again, the young man has two hands to perform tasks!
On the other hand, the music in his ears has also allowed Sebastien to cope with the sounds in the environment in a whole new way. During the early days, in particular, Sebastien seemed to delight in the discovery of his new ‘soundscape’: he would listen to the music with the headphones, remove the headphones from his ears to listen to the surrounding sounds, and then put them back in his ears half-way.
Objects to hold: Another challenging behaviour was Sebastien’s desire to pick up rubbish. Sebastien had essentially appointed himself as a garbage collector. He would pick up rubbish, stuff them in his pockets, and dumped them in various preferred receptacles such as the small rubbish bins in public buses. It was hard not to flinch at the horrified looks of fellow passengers who were appalled at the unending flow of garbage emerging from the seemingly bottomless pockets of this strange young man.My compromise solution was to provide Sebastien with various items with interesting textures (shoe horn, comb, chenille stems, rubber bands, tiny soft toys, tie-straps, cords, etc) to hold, manipulate, and/or brush against his face. I have also engaged him by giving him stickers to paste in a small notebook. Essentially, I am keeping his hands busy by addressing his need for tactile manipulation. By giving Sebastien these alternatives, I have succeeded in limiting his retrieval of things from the ground to rubber bands.
Relaxation routines: Finally, I have instituted two daily relaxation routines in an ongoing effort to calm Sebastien’s body and its tendency to get overly aroused in response to external stimuli: Ten minutes of conscious breathing exercises; and fifteen minutes of lying on a cranio-sacral cushion (formally known as the still point inducer) positioned at the base of his neck.
To some extent, my new attitude and sensory strategies, in combination with behavioural management, have alleviated some of Sebastien’s issues. Unfortunately, they have, by no means, extinguished these behaviours. Occasionally, Sebastien could still get over-stimulated by a passing train and make a scene.
Nonetheless, in the face of all the things I cannot control, I have found strength in my quest to identify and try out new strategies that could work to make our lives better. In fact, my experimentation has helped to rekindle my deflated spirit. I am once again reminded of what had previously infused so much interest and excitement in my parenting journey – playing the role of the curious explorer embarking on an adventure into the unknown.
Therefore, while my sensory strategies, tools and practices may or may not work for your child, what I hope you can take away from my discussion above is my relentless pursuit of different solutions. On this interminable parenting journey, we parents of our autistic kids do not get to rest on our laurels. We will continuously be bombarded by challenges that we cannot yet envisage. To stay empowered in a life that can bring us down to our knees, we can only keep on bouncing our toes, try out new approaches, discover what works, throw out what does not, and keep on TRYING.
2. Take on what you can… It’s never going to be perfect…
For a good four years, I called the shots and asserted my guidance firmly over Sebastien. In stark contrast, our interactions these days can better be described as an open-ended series of negotiations and compromises. The ‘battleground’ in our household is an ever-changing terrain with constant and subtle shifts in the balance of power between us. Though I have the upper hand these days, Sebastien, with his persistent desire to push through his agenda, whether the agenda items are desirable or not, is still an exhausting adversary.
This new reality has been a bitter pill for me to swallow, but I have come to accept the fact that I cannot transform Sebastien into a well-behaved teenager. Rather, I really have to choose to focus on selected issues, while putting up with others for the time being. For instance, when I had my hands full in dealing with Sebastien’s obsession with his penis and his frequent outbursts of aggression, I let his compulsive gathering of garbage and other items slide. When these issues subsided and Sebastien showed an inclination to please me, I began to work on his ‘garbage picking’ problem…
Unfortunately, I have not been able to rest on my laurels nor linger in the headiness of victory. The season of adolescence has been characterised by an endless series of battles. Even as I succeed in dealing with one behaviour, new ones would arise and old ones would return with a vengeance to rear their ugly heads.
Therefore one of the toughest things that I have been forced to make peace with is this immutable fact:
It is that whatever I do, it is never going to be good enough.
In fact, no matter how hard we both try – Sebastien in restraining some of his impulses and me in regulating him to the best of my ability, the outcome will still fall far short of the norm. Not a single day will go by without Sebastien getting a hostile, frightened or disturbed look, even on uneventful days. What these outsiders do not see or realise is the toil, sweat and tears behind the making of the “Seb-spectacle” they deem to be substandard behaviour. None of them crossing Sebastien in his path would truly appreciate the amount of effort that he is exerting to self-regulate and curb his impulses. And no one could fully apprehend the ultimate unfairness that the one day in the week or the two weeks when Sebastien does get into some mischief always overshadows, if not temporarily obliterates, the fact that he has kept it together for the remaining days.
Of course, there are days when I wish that Sebastien would just try harder to curb his impulses and rein in his desires. Then I have to remind myself of the statement that Jerome, my boyfriend, had once said, which effectively halted my deluge of complaints about Sebastien: “It's not his fault.” For the past year, I have been fighting, crying, raging, and analysing in vain against this heartbreaking and irrefutable reality.At the end of the day, all I can do is to make peace with the things that are beyond my control. Ultimately, making peace with all these imperfections – Sebastien’s poor behaviour, my frustration, and the public’s lack of empathy – in this season of adolescence is my only option; there is no other way for me to survive it.
3. Cherishing your adolescent for who he is… as best as you can.
There was once a time I had fantasised that I would wake up one day and Sebastien’s season of adolescence would have passed. However, I have now been assaulted by reality one too many times to hold onto this illusion. Thus, increasingly, I have been striving to make peace with the unpredictability of my universe with Sebastien. Instead of living in the grip of fear, I challenge myself each day to take a leap of faith in him and cherish our good moments together.
Although Sebastien’s misadventures in this topsy-turvy season of adolescence can overshadow the positive aspects of his being, I am constantly taking a big step back on each day’s events to remind myself of Sebastien’s good side. For instance, in the last couple of months, through all our battles, Sebastien has reached out to me to express his need for my approval and affection. And it is not just out of his desire to score rewards or avoid consequences, but the need for an affirmation that he is loved… by me, a plea to be accepted for who he is.
Despite my disappointment and distress at his adolescent escapades, I can also see a budding young man who is genuinely striving to know himself and carve his niche in a world that does not understand him. Through all our clashes and his run-ins with others in mainstream society, Sebastien has been forced to confront the unpleasant and challenging truth that much of what he is inclined to do smacks against the norms of society. Although Sebastien is making some effort to modulate himself at times, there are still parts of his being, which are still straining against normative limits. However, at this phase of his life, he can only learn the lessons of life himself.
Thus, in the days ahead, I will do my best to hold onto my recognition of the special person that Sebastien is, and the lessons of love I am supposed to learn in my journey with him. In lieu of fearing for him, or lingering in frustration and self-pity, I choose, with a hefty measure of acceptance and a growing dose of letting go, to honour his plea by accepting and loving him for who he is…
A final thought…
Someone once suggested to me, that perhaps I needed to lower my expectations about Sebastien and what he can do. But yet his better half – the self that is continuing to perform household chores; experimenting with watercolours; and tilting his face towards me for kisses on his cheeks – tells me otherwise… And for the sake of Sebastien’s better half, I will keep on aiming for the stars…