Playing "Monster" Peekaboo with My Son, an Autistic Young Man
by Choo Kah Ying
Recently, when I released a 17-page illustrated e-book, entitled Beautiful Monster (SGD6; see a short video of the book on YouTube), a mum who purchased the book told me frankly that she was taken aback by the title at first. While it does feature a fictional character of an autistic young man, this book, written in the form of a poem, is inspired by Sebastien (my autistic son) and his “survival strategy” of regulating his emotions through picking up garbage. Amidst the escalating generation of waste that is contributing to the global climate crisis, Sebastien's "need" to pick up garbage makes him a silent "hero" in his instinctive pursuit of cleaning up the world, one step at a time. This book is my way of acknowledging his not-so-noticeable contributions to this world.
But why Beautiful Monster?
Well, I was deliberate in going out on a limb to use the word, "Monster". However, in this context, it has multiple interpretations. Certainly, it alludes to my struggles with Sebastien during his adolescence and youth that was characterized by meltdowns of aggression and self-injury. In fact, seven years ago, in the throes of my struggle with Sebastien, Ann Bauer's description of her autistic son with this phrase, "the monster in my son", resonated deeply with me. This is how terrifying our autistic children's unleashing of their emotions can feel like when the full intensity is directed at us — the ones who love them most.
At the same time, "Monster", is also deeply special to me because Sebastien has turned it into a game between us — a variation of Peek-a-Boo (see the video). It could be triggered by favorite phrases like Buzz Lightyear's "To Infinity and Beyond" or encounters with scary creatures like dinosaurs or tigers that "roar" while reading a book. Sebastien would then recoil in mock fear, while I lean away from him, brandishing my "claws" before "pouncing" on him with a loud "BAH!", whereby he would explode into a series of giggles. What keeps this game fresh, apart from the panopoly of "scary characters" and contexts is the fact that Sebastien can never guess when I would exactly go "BAH!" and I would prolong the suspense by withholding the "BAH" for as long as I can.
While most may consider Sebastien's then-pursuit of "Monster" Peekaboo as a sign of his emotional immaturity, they fail to acknowledge that he had honed in on this game because he perceived that others saw him this way due to his meltdowns. By turning "Monster" into something that is at once "scary" and "fun", Sebastien is audaciously defying our mainstream society's one-sided embrace of positive emotions over negative ones. As an autism specialist who was counseling me about Sebastien's meltdowns, after I had moved him to Bali, informed me, all emotions are valid; it is what makes us human. In fact, our mainstream society's creation of an emotional hierarchy that celebrates smiles and laughter, while suppressing the expression of anger and sadness, is fundamentally unhealthy. In fact, all the years when I thought that I was managing Sebastien very well with my behavioral management strategies, I was only contributing to the accumulation of negative emotions within him that ultimately exploded when he grew old enough to assert his individuality. My failure to acknowledge his transformation into an adult and endeavor to control his emotions in order to return to the good old days when he was a manageable child only added fuel to the fire.
At the end of the day, everyone of us has a “monster” within us. Because of our conventional upbringing, we hide it in the closet. Perhaps, if we let it come out to play, we may come to realize that this monster may have a beautiful side after all.