Thinking Ahead

My younger son Aidan, who is twelve, has recently discovered Bob Marley. He found one of my CDs from my college days (when I first discovered Bob) and it was love at first listen. Aidan plays it day and night. He tells me that he likes the music, but also the lyrics. And I’ve noticed that, too. Aidan seems even calmer and more introspective than usual. What I hadn’t noticed was that Nigel had also started listening.

Last weekend the boys were very excited because The Day the Earth Stood Still was opening. They had recently seen the original and looked forward to comparing the new one to it. I told them that we’d wait until the following weekend so it wouldn’t be so crowded. Then I made the fatal mistake of writing on the calendar the day and time I hoped that I could take them to see it.  If it’s on the calendar, it’s in stone as far as Nigel is concerned. It’s going to happen. And usually, it does. But that morning the schools had scheduled an emergency 2-hour late start due to bad road conditions, and that threw everything off for the day. Because Aidan started school two hours later, I couldn’t go into work until two hours later. Consequently, I didn’t finish my work until two hours later than I normally do. By the time I got home, I could not do all I needed to do in time to go to the movies that evening, and we would go the following day, I announced.

Nigel got upset. “But it’s on the calendar!” he yelled and began breathing heavily through clenched teeth, eyes wild as he quickly went into meltdown mode. This was not good. I had plans with a friend later that evening (something I had planned to do after the movie), and if Nigel didn’t calm down, I wouldn’t be able to leave him. I tried reminding him about “Old Plan, New Plan.”  “That doesn’t work!” he yelled. He then took a wooden ruler and mutilated a piece of pizza with it. I could tell he was escalating. He went to the living room and broke one of my hand-painted pysanky eggs from relatives in Slovakia. I knew that my response was crucial – he wanted a reaction out of me, so I did not react. I calmly said, “Nigel, pick up those broken pieces and put them in the trash.” And I think he was a little surprised that I didn’t yell at him about the egg, so he actually cleaned it up. He resumed his verbal tirade, but at least he stopped being destructive. Then I had an idea. An alternative for him. It was a “New Plan,” but I didn’t want to call it that.

It was risky, because I didn’t want him to think that I was rewarding him for his behavior. But what I hoped to accomplish was to help motivate him to regulate his behavior himself. Some would call it a bribe. But God knows that when you have to change plans on an autistic teen, you better have an acceptable back-up plan.

I sat him down and tried to look into his wild eyes. “Nigel, here are your choices. You can be mad about not going to see the movie tonight, but that’s not going to make it happen. Or, you can calm down and come with me to the store to pick out a video rental and get some ice cream, and we’ll see The Day the Earth Stood Still tomorrow.” Then I got up and went to my room to get my boots and coat.

Aidan followed me into my room. He looked at me. “Why does he act that way?” he asked with concern and sadness in his voice. “Honey, it’s because the autism makes it hard for him to regulate his emotions and his behavior.”

“Then how is he going to take care of himself when he’s an adult?” Aidan asked in a sincere voice.

A chill ran through my body. I looked at him. “We don’t know if he will. But he’s learning; he’s trying. I think he’ll figure it out. And he can live with me as long as he needs to. So can you.”

I put my arm around him and we walked out into the hallway. Nigel was standing by the front door, with his shoes and coat on. I looked at his face, and the wildness was gone, replaced by a look that I couldn’t determine. Remorse? Gratitude? Maybe both. “I’m ready,” he said. “Okay, I’ll get my purse and keys,” I said. As I walked off, I heard Aidan quietly say to him, “I’m glad you were able to calm down.” And my heart filled with far too many emotions to identify.

A moment later, as I started the car, Nigel asked from the back seat, “Can we listen to ‘Don’t Worry About a Thing’?”

“It’s called ‘Three Little Birds,'” Aidan said.

“Sure,” I said, inserting the CD. And then we all sang, even Nigel:

Don’t worry . . . about a thing . . . ‘cause every little thing . . . gonna be all right . . .

18 thoughts on “Thinking Ahead

  1. M

    what did they think of the movie?

    whew, bob marley saves the day, brings a little mellowness.

    you know, the fact that aidan asks questions is so great. a lot of siblings (well, at least some) can feel resentment or confusion, but never express it. they just develop silence or argue or become distant. it actually takes a lot of maturity to ask questions, try to understand, piece together a sense of the other person.

    your tanya-intelligence is contagious (or hereditary, one of the two).

  2. Fearless Females

    Wow. That was great!! I loved the song choice, too, you must have been humming that song in your head while pulling the car out of the driveway!!? You did a great job of redirecting and bargaining w/o making a big deal out of it as Nigel was expecting. Great success!!

    Nick also asks me similar questions about Meghan’s outbursts so I know how it is to answer those questions…with a lump in your throat and you want to cry… Aidan seems like a nice boy!! My Nick, however, would have tackled Meghan and tried to beat her up in the car. (Kidding but close to it!!)

  3. Kate

    That is sooo sweet. That just makes my heart warm and fill up and not many things do these days it seems. It is great how much concern Aidan is expressing for Nigel and how much he seems to understand. Especially re whispering in his brother’s ear. Good re-directing.
    I know I always tried to come up with a backup plan if something I wanted to do didnt work as that would lessen the dissapointment.

  4. Em

    Whew..powerful stuff. We really don’t know what will happen when they become adults. But every little step forward gives us hope.

  5. Niika

    It’s always good to hear how much support Aidan has for Nigel. You did a good job raising them to be good brothers.

  6. Tanya Savko Post author

    Thanks, everyone. I always appreciate the pats on the back!

    M, both boys really liked the movie and had a great discussion about the aspects of it that were similar to the original vs. the “improvements.” It made for an interesting ride home in the car!

  7. mama mara

    Wonderful post! And I don’t think that was bribery at all, offering Nigel choices. It was brilliant.

    BTW: How did you NOT burst into giggle fits when he mutilated the pizza with a ruler? Seriously, when my Taz does something like that, I have to shove my fist into my mouth lest I take his escalation to a whole new level of nasty.

  8. Tanya Savko Post author

    Mama Mara – yes, the pizza mutilation had me envisioning John Belushi with his samurai sword. It’s such an odd moment – wanting to laugh because it’s so damn funny but fearing the ramifications if you do.

  9. Dee

    Wow when my husband heard that song playing while he walked the streets as a student in Britain in the 70’s he was so proud to be a Jamaican.

    Bob had a wonderful effect that day and he still does.

  10. jess

    what a wonderful roller coaster of a post ..

    a palpable sweetness and understanding between the boys ..

    the torturous question that we all stare down, the elephant in our virtual room..

    and bob, sweet, knowing, easy bob to the rescue

  11. Bev Hillis

    How did you get so wise?? Kudos to you.
    Oh, a tho’t: Would it have helped in the morning, when the two hour delay occurred to tell the boys of the change in schedule?

  12. Tanya Savko Post author

    Hi Bev,

    Thanks for stopping by. Nigel had been warned throughout the day that we probably wouldn’t be able to make it to the movies that night, but I think it was too hard for him to let it go. I always try to give him as much notice about schedule changes as possible, but sometimes he’s got his own ideas of how he wants things to be!

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  15. Sam Powrie

    You said “Nigel had been warned throughout the day that we probably wouldn’t be able to make it to the movies that night, but I think it was too hard for him to let it go. ”

    So really, Nigel was being ‘successful’ even when he was protesting! ‘Understanding’ and behavioural ‘success’ are not necessarily always in the form that we parents and adults would like to see. However they always take a form that makes sense in terms of the coping mechanisms available to the child at any point in time. I’m very impressed that Nigel responded with such vigour and assertiveness – I’d regard both as clear evidence that he’s putting a lot of energy into the essential processes of his personal development!

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