Seven years ago I became pregnant at the same time as a good friend of mine. Our children were born a day apart in the same hospital. She and I also had older children, both sons. One of hers was slightly older than my oldest son, and when I first met him, I found him rather peculiar. He was a sweet boy, but whenever I visited their house he’d often be found climbing to the top of the family’s entertainment center or spinning around in his underwear. I couldn’t understand for the life of me why they would allow such behavior, especially with guests present. I didn’t speak my mind, however. After all, it was their home. Who was I to say anything? My friend later told me that he was Autistic. It wasn’t the first time I had heard the term. I’d heard it plenty of times before – on radio talk shows, television, even through my doctor’s office. It never seemed like a real thing, though. Autism couldn’t be a medical problem. It was a discipline problem. Wasn’t it? I mean, people don’t spank their kids as much as they used to, there has been a significant increase in many Autistic behaviors and traits so it stands to reason that it had to be attributable to controlling disobedience! My friend simply didn’t discipline her child well enough.
Some time later, I found my foot firmly wedged between my lips, and a jagged little pill labeled “pride” stuck somewhere in the back of my throat as I sat across from a pediatric neurologist who had just diagnosed my eldest son, Seth (who was only 2!) with Autism Spectrum Disorder. It took a while for me to accept the diagnosis and learn about the condition. My friend was an invaluable source of information and strength. Shortly after his diagnosis, during a heart to heart, she told me that she knew he was Autistic long before his diagnosis, but didn’t want to tell me. To this day, I count this wisdom on her part. I would have never accepted her “unprofessional” diagnosis and it might have even ruined our friendship. It took years of therapy, but Seth began acquiring language skills I never thought he would. At age 5, he finally understood the concept enough to tell me he loved me. Today, he has mastered the majority of his speech goals.
“My friend simply didn’t discipline her child well enough.”
Like my friend’s son, Seth has other issues. And like any other child, no ASD child is the same. My son has many social, intellectual, and psychological challenges. He sometimes reacts violently to change in routine and stressful situations. There are instances in which we’ve had to isolate or restrain him from causing harm to others or himself. He is sometimes so absorbed in his own world that simple, verbal commands go unheeded or unheard. The first time my parents witnessed such behavior, their reaction was similar to my uneducated one. They wanted me to spank him for his repeated disobedience. Normally, I would have agreed with them. (I’m still a proponent of discipline.) But with Seth, I have to approach such situations in an entirely different manner.
I still believe Autism is a discipline problem. ASD children can run amok. They can open front doors at night and wander into the street or get lost. They can easily hurt themselves or others if not closely and continually monitored. But the discipline ball is in our court. Are we, as ASD parents disciplined enough to care for a special needs child? Are we going to be diligent to monitor their movement? Will we pay attention to their body movements and catch the context clues that indicate a potential meltdown? Does their need to avoid an overstimulating environment outweigh our need to take them to the store? Can we discipline ourselves to correct in love and be compassionate when an explanation is needed for the three-thousandth time that day?
“Can we discipline ourselves to correct in love?”
I would love to tell you I can do these things all day, every day. I wish I could tell you that I am the most understanding, disciplined mom out there. After all, I have two Autistic children – I should know what to expect and how to react. But, it would be a lie. I get frustrated. I yell. I spank. I have even, on particularly bad days, said things that I wish I could take back. But I’m human. I have to remember to forgive myself of that humanity. Seth, being the fantastic, loving kid he is, always very quickly does once I apologize for it, (and genuinely seems to forget, too). Later, when I’ve calmed down and forgiven myself, I resolve to start over and remember that Autism is my discipline problem.