Don’t worry Chad (can I call you Chad? I feel like if you were alive and we were friends, you’d let me call you Chad), I was able to help my kid get her life. It just took a little prodding, a meltdown that started at night, took a break, then finished in the morning, and um…some therapy? Wait, autistic kids can start a meltdown at night, go to bed, then get up in the morning and finish it? I mean…I had no idea and I won’t generalize, but my kid certainly did…so yeah. I would file that under “things I didn’t know my autistic kid could do”. She has many talents. I’m being funny because having a meltdown isn’t a talent per se, but it’s definitely something I didn’t think she’d be able to have, take a break to sleep, then get up and begin again. But yes, that’s exactly what happened.
She’s in virtual school like many kids are across the country. She’s done pretty well. However, this is a kid whose executive functioning skills are deficient. That, plus she’s autistic. That plus she has ADHD. Oh and let’s not forget, she is, above all of those things, a teenager. For many teenagers, schoolwork isn’t quite the priority. And when they have a phone, a TV, and pretty much anything other than school, fuhgeddaboudit! For my kid, posting her daily questions on Facebook, posting the current events of the day, watching TV – all take precedence over this minor thing called school that will eventually be the sole reason my kid gets out of my house, lives independently, and earns a living. So, you can imagine, her actually doing her homework and assignments is something the Hubs and I encourage.
Encouragement can come in many forms. In this house, it can be incentives where the girls can earn things. It can be a “you can do it!” pep talk, you name it, we’ve done it. In the case of taking work seriously and getting assignments done, encouragement sounds like “you will not touch a single screen in this house until you’ve finished that World History assignment.” Ok, sometimes we as parents can falter and revert to idol threats. The thought of not being able to hold her phone or her iPad definitely gets her attention. I was just so excited and impressed by the assignment, that my kid’s lack of interest simply flabbergasted me. I could not believe that this kid was sleepin‘ on this!
Get this. The assignment for her 9th grade World History Honors class was to sit in front of the computer on Monday through Wednesday of last week and…wait for it….watch Black Panther. Uh huh. The teacher showed it in 3 parts to the class over those 3 days and as they watched it, the kids were given a guide to the characters and had to answer a few questions that dealt with the use of natural resources in the movie, Imperialism as it relates to the people of Wakanda and how they chose to deal with it, and the roles of women in the movie as it related to their leadership.
HOW COOL IS THAT?!!!!!!?????? Who in my generation would not JUMP at an opportunity to watch a movie in class and write about it? I’m still reeling over the creativity of the assignment (and yes I most certainly told her teacher how cool it was). So, I might have been a tad bit um…bothered by my kid’s “meh” attitude. And I may or may not have allowed that to seep in when it came to my…ahem…encouragement.
Ok ok, so sometimes a parent can cause a meltdown. I knew it was coming. Basically, I told her to pick a time and I’d watch it with her and help her complete the assignment. She chose 7:30pm (this was Tuesday after class so she was already 2 parts behind). Ironically, 7:30 is the time that we set for her to stop using the phone. I had to veto that time. Why? Because she had from the time school was out (1:30pm) to do the assignment, was already behind and waiting until 7:30 would likely roll over into past her bedtime. Plus, we have got to stop this “I can’t START doing homework until I have to STOP using my phone.” So she chose 5pm. Ok fine. Then she changed her mind and chose 6pm. Starting at 6pm would definitely interfere with her evening rituals. Now, here’s where we as parents of autistic and other special needs kids have to reconcile with a thing called natural consequences. Natural consequences are another way of saying “you gon’ learn today”. In other words, this situation will play out, I as a parent know well in advance that it will not play out well, however, also as a parent, I hope that there will be a lesson greater than what I as a parent can teach. When she said 6pm, I did the math in my head and realized that the first 3rd of the movie assignment from Monday was 48 minutes long. If we sat there and watched it without stopping to explain anything, and we started exactly at 6pm, we’d finish at 6:48pm. Fine. EXCEPT — one of my daughter’s rituals is to call my sister every night at 6:45pm. Due to her auditory processing disorder, I knew that it would take a minimum of 90 minutes to watch the 48 minute clip, stop to explain parts, and oversee her doing the assignment. We all have rituals. I personally do not like to take a shower before brushing my teeth in the morning. If I do, I feel weird. Some autistic people have very specific rituals, that if, not completed, can cause mild to severe problems. For my kid, an interruption in a ritual can be a pretty big problem. For instance, if my sister is having phone problems and can’t take the 6:45 call, if we are doing something else and my kid can’t make the call…if there is anything that keeps her from making or taking this call (that has not been planned out well in advance to prepare her for the change), my teenager will start getting anxious and eventually have a meltdown (for her, this means, crying…a lot, like with snot slinging and dripping, sobbing (a louder, more advanced version of crying in my opinion), and discussing whatever is bothering her with everyone who will listen without regard to what they are doing (such as interrupting my husband during a conference call, or me during a Zoom call). I know this. I know this well. I don’t like to watch her have a meltdown. However, after we have tried countless times to get her to understand the importance of getting work done, I realized that perhaps this natural consequence was something that needed to happen in order for her to take her work more seriously. Feel free to yell at me in the comments if you’re autistic and you disagree. I’d love it if you’re autistic and you actually DO agree — because as I listen to the autistic adults who tell me that the best way to parent my autistic kid is to treat them as I would any other kid — this is exactly how I would do any other kid, namely, tell them that there will be no screens until the homework is done, even if that means your nightly 6:45pm phone call to your aunt is delayed until later in the night.
So 6:00 came and went. At 6:05, I called upstairs to tell her to come down. Then we had to find the movie. Because the Hubs is Ugandan but born in Kenya and is a huge fan of Lupita Nyong’o who was also born in Kenya we own the DVD. We couldn’t find it. We don’t own tons of movies. In my head, I knew it was in the drawer by the TV. Where else would it be? No clue because it wasn’t there. There was no way to watch it via her school account since the teacher played it live. So, I found it on Amazon Prime, rented it and told her that the $3.99 would come out of her allowance. And we started watching. At this point, it’s only about 6:20 so she’s fine. By about 6:30, it occurred to her that we are only about 15 minutes into the movie, and she’s going to miss her 6:45 ritual. And the anxiety began.
There comes a time in parenting when you as a parent have just “had it”. It’s not a proud moment. It’s a moment where you just want your kid to “get it”. To understand that in 10, 15 years from now, you will be on your own, and no one will be around to tell you what to do, how to handle life, how to manage your time. You will either sink or swim. You’ll be late for class, miss something, and fail a test which will cause you to either never do that again because you don’t want to fail, have to go home and live with your parents and their rules, or you’ll continue to make the same mistakes and not succeed until whenever it is that you do. You’ll be on your job, and screw something up because no one reminded you to do it, therefore you get fired, and have to find a new job. No one will wipe your tears, no one will tell you it’s ok. No one will pay your rent so that you can stay in your apartment until you find a new job. That’s where my mind went. So, as her anxiety rose over missing her ritual, MY anxiety rose over her missing out on life. Could both of us have been a tad bit overthinking things? Well, possibly. I mean, I gave birth to her, there is still no concrete reason for why a person gets an autism diagnosis, and if she is capable of obsessing over missing out on a ritual, then she certainly could have picked up that from her good old mama who is also capable of obsessing over what her daughter’s future would look like after she kicked the bucket. Our behaviors during this bout of anxiety did not do a thing to help either of us. For her, the only “cure” would be for me to say, ok, take a break and go do your call then come back. For me, the only “cure” would be a crystal ball that showed her being ok without me around to make sure she gets to work on time. There are plenty of times, we’ve relented and the ritual has won. This wasn’t one of those times. I was adamant that she would sit there, and finish the assignment. Yes she cried. No she did not sob (that night). Yes her anxiety over watching the clock did not really allow for watching the movie in order to fully grasp the assignment. Was I trying to prove a point? Maybe. Did it work? I don’t know yet.
She finished Monday’s work at about 7:10 and ran upstairs to do her call with my sister. But before she did, I told her that she was not to touch a screen until the rest of the assignment was done and that it would be wise to watch the 3rd part of the movie with the class the next day so that she could skip having to wait until later. Ritual #2 is her getting up at 6am to get on the iPad to do things that calm her (according to her) would not be happening. And this my friends, is how, my kid went to bed after a meltdown, then woke up the next day and continued the meltdown from the day prior.
Wednesday morning’s meltdown was pretty epic. She’s been down and wanted to have a therapist (which she’s had in previous years) so we got her one, then the therapist fired us (a good thing since I wasn’t overly excited with her even though someone we trusted recommended her) before we could fire her. Mainly because our teenager spent most of the session not paying attention. A whole other blog for the fact that the therapist (via video) couldn’t seem to pay much attention to ME when I discussed how things were going. Anyway, she usually doesn’t ask for a therapist unless she’s on the verge of crying. So a few days prior, while I was on the phone with a fellow parent of an autistic son, who also knows my kid very well, the 3 of us agreed that this parent friend would be available whenever my kid needed to talk. She’s quite good at listening and providing advice as long as it isn’t HER kids that are having the issue. So on Wednesday morning when the sobbing started, I called her and handed over the phone.
It seemed to make the meltdown last longer. However, my friend and I both felt like it was necessary. For the first time, my kid was on the phone with someone other than us, able to explain what the problem was (much to my friend’s surprise because her college aged autistic son isn’t able to verbalize what’s going on when he’s upset), and listen to my friend calmly talk her through it. We might be on to something. We shall see.
She ended up attending the class, and watching part 3 of the movie, and asking the teacher if she could stay after to get help completing the questions for parts 2 and 3. We watched the rest of the movie together later that day without the stressors of an assignment or a missed ritual. She actually liked it and while I still don’t think she has a full appreciation for all that is Chadwick Boseman, she did understand the significance of the movie along with knowing that Mr. Boseman recently passed away and was able to have a better understanding of why the teacher used the movie as an example for learning.
We’ve got a ways to go with helping her deal with unplanned changes. These aren’t things that are automatically realized overnight. There will be more meltdowns. We just hope that we can roll with them and learn something in the process.