Following the Rules

Our Autistic Expression

Rules are meant to be broken, but to break them intentionally as the quote suggests, I have to know what they are.

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My ignorance is no defense, but just know by the stunned look on my face, the reddening of my cheeks, and the sudden lack of eye contact- if I broke some unspoken, unlisted, inexcusable rule, it was unintentional. I can always sense when I’ve erred. I don’t always sense how.

Mostly, when unspoken rules are broken, no reasoned explanation is given. To me, that’s the hardest part. That’s my neurodivergent itch to understand, to apply reasoned thought to everything.

This is one frame with which I view life. There are rules that we must follow, on which we can agree.

For most of my life, I lived for knowing (not always following) the rules. Every choice has consequences, so breaking a rule is a matter of weighing those consequences. The expectations in various situations vary, and there are usually a whole host of things not mentioned in the rulebooks on which I’m also being judged.

I can’t know for sure if neurotypicals consider this when they hold people to the unwritten expectations in any given scenario. I used to think they must. Now I’m fairly convinced its a rare trait in humanity in general. Like extreme empathy. Or virtuosic musicianship.

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There are rules everywhere. For everything. At all times.

Even friendships have rules (we call them boundaries) and they’re harder to distinguish. Friendships with the nondivergent are hard to cultivate for this reason. Sometimes they don’t even know what their own rules are, or they change, or they act a certain way because its raining, or some such. I can manage a few friendship like this at a time, but I require much post-hang-out processing to fully understand what I’ve experienced, out-processing interactions, the side eyes and nuances I saw in the moment but couldn’t process while also maintaining my focus on the conversation in the setting. When I said this, they said this, but then they slightly stretched their eye lids, and then immediately ordered another drink, before looking at me and smiling awkwardly. Was this my trespass? Or their internal measure? Are they even aware they did that? And so on.

At least with the neurodivergent, there’s a tendency toward self-awareness or self-pronouncement or clear-cut lines between okay and not okay. There’s an acceptance of variable needs.

There’s also the moral code. Our duty to one another to do our best and do what’s right. I have mine enumerated, but in sum it is “Do unto others” plus “Strive for wellness.”

As I’ve aged, I’ve had an easier time recognizing rules and boundaries. It’s a lifetime pursuit, an academic course of study, understanding what is and isn’t acceptable based on what has or has not transpired in between two people, within a given culture, for my lifespan and the lives of those whose counsel I trust. In many ways, the rules have changed a lot since I was a child, but that’s just a dynamic society acting and reacting, breathing changes.

When people act immorally, illogically, unreasonably, basically like people sometimes do, I’m flummoxed. What’s the motivation? Whyyyyy, I ask the ceiling of many rooms I’m in.

I thrive on rules and I always have. I set them easily for myself and pivot when I need to. It’s about health and wellness, feeling good at the end of the day, or as good as can be expected. It’s about minimizing discomfort, physical, mental, social, and otherwise.

Problem explicitly identified? New rule implemented. Change accepted. Situation improved. Wheel turns.

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Change is easy, easier than maintaining the norm. I get itchy sitting still, itchier still remaining the same. I’m fortunate to be engaged to a neurodivergent man of a similar nature — the Scientist and I will be changing together forever.

Here are my main personal rules (personal as in for me, as in I only expect me to live this way and pass no judgment on anyone else for behaving otherwise):

I never drink more than 6 alcoholic drinks in 4 hours, almost never drink 2 days in a row, and never drink before 4pm unless it’s a holiday where that’s typical. Alcohol creates a depressing self-interested spiralized hole in my mind that need continuous, verbal processing to refill. I put this rule first because it has an intense effect.

As a rule, I prefer a structured workplace with an ever-changing and expansive workload, and I seek these environments and situations out. I’ve been tasked with writing operations and training manuals at many of my jobs, and I’ve had many jobs because before I knew myself as autistic, I externalized internal events. At this point, I’m working from home, for a growing company, doing all sorts of tasks in the comfort of nonfluorescent lighting.

To that end, I prefer yellowish light to bluish, warm colors to cool, quiet situations to loud ones, though I love loud concerts when I’m expecting them. I keep my blue light filters on, I track my hours on a daily basis so I know I’m using my time productively, and I thoughtfully manage working my job, starting my own creativity-centered company, writing a blog, taking long hikes, playing pool, spending quality time with my cats, landscaping, and a host of other things. After I hit a personal low, prior to understanding I was autistic, I started climbing, filling my days, and set a rule to never let myself waste time. I sleep comfortably 6–7 hours a night.

I’m learning how to rest.

I have rules about what I’ll eat and won’t, what I’ll drink and won’t, and when and from where. I don’t often feel hungry or thirsty so I use the clock to prompt me at the same times each day. My food rules are based primarily on my experiences with an undiagnosed stomach disorder I had for the first 20 years of my life, a disorder which immediately got better when I stopped eating pork, meat, chicken, most fried foods, foods with heavy fat and oil content, almonds, raw leafy greens, Splenda, juice on an empty stomach, and full-fat dairy. I don’t expect anyone to keep track of these rules. I manage them just fine and I learned to cook so as not to rely on anyone else to do it for me.

If I’m a guest at dinner, I’m vegetarian. As long as there is a single non-meat dish, I’ll work around everything else based on my internal signaling. I’ll bring my own meal if they cook exclusively with lard. I never settle for an upset stomach, but I never offend a host who is sharing their table with me.

For that matter, if prompted, I will describe in polite or graphic detail the agony of bacon, the indigestion of orange juice, the nights I spent literally on the floor screaming… best not to ask at the dinner table, because I will indulge them for their edification. No, bacon does not go with everything. No, I don’t miss the feeling that a small gnome with a giant pick-axe is trying to cut his way out of my intestines. (The imagery helped me cope when I was a kid. Now it makes people chuckle.)

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I prefer when friends can speak the truth, about me, about themselves or otherwise. The truth does set me free. I can accept self-denial from friends, but insist on an open-book, self-aware model from me outward. So what if I’m blunt, awkward, and keep myself to impossible standards? I’m also kind, generous, and supportive. I’ve crossed a lot of bridges, and I’ll help anyone cross theirs too.

Do I drive over the speed limit? Sure. The speed signs in my area were posted in the 1940s and 50s, when anti-lock breaks and power steering were nonexistent, when cars were giant metal boxes with no safety equipment, boats on wheels, so to speak. So I may drive 5-10 over the posted limit, but … what are those drive 30-40mph over the limit thinking? It’s dangerous for us all. Everyone. It’s not an oppressive rule, it’s a matter of civic duty and safety. Survival.

We all have rules in society and we all know them to some extent or another.

There are rules about when to water the lawn. If it’s 2pm on a hot day and the sprinklers are on, not only are they breaking a rule in my neighborhood, but they’re actually boiling their grass from the inside.

Rules about right-of-way on the road.

Rules about hygiene.

Rules about equity, and equanimity.

Rules about greetings and parties and phone calls and comments and the pandemic has made all of these rules entirely unique for everyone, which is just a field day for my mental filing system. If they tell me what they expect from me, I’ll file that away too. Make a mental preference note.

When I learn a new rule, I ask why, what for, unless the reason is obvious.

Do the nondivergent NEED to know WHY it’s a rule? I’d say most don’t acknowledge how many rules they follow, let alone why. People in the herd for one thing or another. Others exist in a world of their own making, with no structure, and nothing but this moment to guide the next. I’m guessing, of course. I have no idea how they think. I just know that its nothing like me.

I’m all for mindfulness, but also learning from experience, mine and others, always learning, and planning for a healthier, safer tomorrow. Growth mindset. Keep growing.

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About the Series

I am neurodivergent. Neurodivergent is more appropriate terminology than autistic, a term which derives from the Greek word autos meaning self, a term intended to imply isolation from social interaction. While the definition of autism has expanded over time, I feel it is more flawed and divisive than not (as labels typically are). While I do still refer to myself as autistic on occasion, I’m much more likely to label my notable traits as autistic, as in “this skill or tendency sets me apart”, and to describe myself generally as divergent.

My partner, also neurodivergent, feels similarly. We were both diagnosed later in life, in our mid-late 20s, after running the gauntlet of other health and human service concerns and crossing the eventual “must be autism if it isn’t these other things” finish line. I wouldn’t wish either of our journeys toward diagnosis for anyone, years rife with stress, mislabeling, depression, psychosis, serious medical ailments, and general social othering. The medical and psychiatric communities have already begun to recognize neurodivergence earlier, and with more sincere gender blindness, to provide individuals with the tools, resources, and assistance they require. To “make it” in our society as a person who fall many standard deviations outside the expected average on related scales relies on an individualized approach to education and healthcare. (A much larger conversation for another day.)

Sincerely,

Sunshine

Of Www.sunshineandthescientist.com

Creator of Kid Lit Motivates: a fledgling business on Long Island providing customized educational resources from a unique perspective of education

Author of Maddie Steiner, Fashion Designer

For Them to Listen, You Need to Be Listening

A Plea for Child Carers, Rearers, and Engagers

Photo by Gustavo Fring on Pexels.com

Scenario 1

I’m on the self-check-out line at the grocery store, waiting for a free machine. It’s busier than usual and a few of us wait our turn. A woman looks up from scanning a cartful of items and sees the line of customers backing up — she seems stressed, a bit frazzled, perhaps even a bit guilty for having so many items on a self-serve line. I maintain a placid look and browse the cookie display to my left.

I’m empathetic and I have no desire to rush her. She’s checking herself out, requiring her to scan and bag everything alone, all while keeping tabs on an imaginative 4-yr-old who is holding the cart with one hand and playing with a toy dinosaur with the other. He’s keeping himself occupied while she has a lot going on. No one else on the line behind me seems concerned either — there are two other machines that could free up at any moment. The other customers seems patient and unconcerned.

The dinosaur gallops across the register, across the scanner, and falls onto the weighted bagging surface. A robotic voice sounds: Please remove the unscanned item. And then the woman, with an actual finger pointed several inches from the kid’s face, grunts, “You’re not being a good listener!” He recoils in fear, eyes wide, silent, then snatches the dinosaur back and slides himself to the other side of the cart without ever losing contact.

I’m taken aback. In this scenario, what is a Good Listener? I’m an adult, and I have no idea what she’s talking about. Should he? 

Scenario 2

I’m at the shoe store, hoping to return a pair of $80 sandals I’d bought thinking they’d only cost $25. Ahead of me, next on line for the register, is a grandmother and a young boy, maybe five or six. The boy is asking questions about the sock display — Why do they have cats and no dogs? Nana, where are the kid socks? What are these for (pointing at the barely-there nylon toe covers)? 

All good questions. I’m wondering how I’d answer them as if he’d asked me. Maybe cats are more popular sellers, or dog socks have all sold out. Kid socks are probably over by kid shoes, or near the socks section — the register is just a sampling of the sock stock. And I have no idea what those stretchy nylon toe traps are for — they’ve never done anything for me except been annoying the for 10 minutes they were on my feet before I threw them across the room.

Nana is not answering any of his questions. She’s patently ignoring him, despite him being polite, deferential, and attentive. When she gets called to the register, she steps up, turns, and barks, “Get over here” and then not two seconds later, lunging and grabbing his wrist, “You’re not listening, come here, don’t move.” 

When was he supposed to move those three feet from the line to the register? How was he supposed to know he should be listening for her commands while she was ignoring his questions? How quickly was he supposed to “get” before being branded “not listening”?

Mind-boggled, I continue to watch as his affect falls from chipper and curious to dejected and sad. His arms have fallen lifelessly to his sides. His chin is on his chest. Still, a woman with a stack of shoe boxes brushes by him and he attentively steps backward to move out of the way. Nana, not seeing the woman, looks down, “That’s it, I said don’t move. You’re not listening, so no ice cream now.” His face wells up and he hurries to wipe away the tears, holding his breath and turning red. “Oh grow up,” says Nana, as she grabs his wrist to guide him out of the store. 

I fear for his potentially stunted emotional development and the tattered shards of a relationship he has with Nana. I hope there are other adults in his life who will answer questions, acknowledge his attentiveness, and support him.

Real Stories, Not Exaggerations

In my experience, those of us who are professionally trained and experienced working with kids are one of two ways: 

  1. Overly empathetic, attuned to all kids around us at all times, struggling not to butt in to parent-child interactions unless the most dire circumstances call for it, quick to make goofy eye contact or wave at toddlers, and quick to compliment a kid’s hat or shoes to put a smile on their face. It takes every ounce of strength for us in these scenarios to keep our mouths shut and mind our own business, only interjecting if something is clearly putting a child in harm’s way.
  2. Exhausted, overworked, and short-tempered, incapable of dealing with one more kid for one more minute especially when we’re off-the-clock, running scripts on autopilot and expecting more of our own kids than they could possibly perform. From a glance, the women from these scenarios seem to exist here. 

The grocery store and shoe store stories are true — happening just as I’ve described them. 

Both of those women were also educators — one wearing a shirt from a local school indicating such, the other brandishing a school ID for a discounted rate. This means they’ve been trained, presumably, to be on the lookout for these types of missteps. I find this the most appalling part of their stories — that they’ve entirely lost perspective, with their own children, and possibly with all children. 

They’re Doing Their Best

The women I’ve described may be the most patient, loving, attentive women most of the time — maybe just having off days. Maybe they were stressed, overworked, underpaid, receiving awful news, and having difficulty coping with the world we all inhabit. Maybe, after a long, dark, tense day full of harsh realities, they were really doing their best. Maybe they went home, apologized, and openly explained to their children that being an adult is challenging and that emotions, while a personal responsibility to control, are sometimes difficult to understand, even for adults who love their kids very much.

Maybe I’m being too generous. But maybe they really were doing their best.

To them, and others like them, I plead, the most important thing to remember, the kids were doing their best too. Neither kid was being malevolent, harmful, or intentionally troublesome. (Most kids aren’t.) They both seemed timid, not testing, after explosive commands. They both were minding themselves, attending, listening when they were chastised. 

Even on the worst day, it is the adult’s responsibility to retain, or regain, control — of themselves — first. If a child is not responding in the ‘proper’ way, the adult needs to reconsider exactly how appropriate ‘proper’ is, and how intentional ‘proper’ has been communicated. 

If something an adult is doing makes a child cry, shrink in terror, or freeze up, it is the adult’s responsibility to change the narrative. If they don’t, they’re the ones not listening.

Photo by Kamaji Ogino on Pexels.com

Listen, We’re Not Listening

As a culture, we need to get back to basics.

First off, what outward physical sign are we expecting to see when we tell a kid to Listen? Listening is an active event, but it’s mostly unobservable. 

To know for certain if a kid is listening, we see them follow directions or change their facial expression. Can a kid be listening without reacting? Listening without responding? Listening without changing their expression or action? Listening while playing, moving, looking away? Yes, absolutely, yes.

“Listen!” They are. They’re listening more than we know. Unless we tell them exactly what we want them to do, they can’t possibly show us they’re listening. They hear is all of the things that go unsaid. And they’re learning how to interact with people when they grow up, how to cope, how to communicate, and how to be an adult — from all the things we say and don’t say, and all the ways we say and don’t say them.

LISTEN! We’re building little humans here, one interaction at a time. 

Reaction Time and Space

In both scenarios, there was less than 2-seconds allotted for the child’s reaction, even when a direct command was given. “Behave, you’re not behaving, you’re punished for not behaving,” is a common trope among short-tempered caretakers. 

Under the age of 10–12, children are still learning to process language. This means, even if we speak slowly, kindly, and directly, it may take a literal minute for them to be able to fully understand that we’re asking them to react and what that reaction should be. 

If we’re speaking quickly, angrily, with complexity or with nuance, it takes even more time to process and react. Contrary to the beliefs of some, aggressively yelled commands are LESS LIKELY to be followed.

What does ‘behave’ mean to a child? What does ‘listen’ mean? What do we mean, ‘stand quietly next to me, don’t touch anything and when we get back to the car you can play with your toy?’ That’s a lot to process. What are they supposed to do immediately? What are we actually asking and why? Even if the child can follow, is there even a reason to command?

The first child NEVER took his hand off the shopping cart. That child was clearly following instructions that had been given earlier in the day or trained on previous shopping trips. He listened. If he had been instructed to keep his hands at his sides, touch nothing, be still, be invisible, he’d likely try his best at that too. He’s listening, but nothing is actually being asked.

The second child NEVER had a chance to act. He wasn’t listening for the cashier to call them forward, but why should he be? He wasn’t misbehaving by adult standards. He was standing still and not moving as directed. The assumption that he should grow up, or that he’s done something wrong — it’s damaging. He’s listening, and he had no way to succeed in this scenario. 

The more aggressively we respond to children, the more reserved they become in their reactions. It isn’t their responsibility to change the cycle.

Emotions Speak Louder than Words

While empathy is cognitively developing, for most kids, absorbing emotional affect is automatic. (For neurodiverse kids, this skill may develop later if at all.) 

So for most kids, no matter what WORDS they’re hearing, the accompanying EMOTION is translating more quickly. This is why reacting to a baby’s fall can bring tears or laughter — they respond to our affect in real time, before their own pain or pressure signals. Our reaction shows them how to interpret their internal signaling.

Until kids develop a clear sense of self in their preteen to teen years, they pick up and emote whatever the strongest influence in their current sphere is emoting — stress or elation, negativity or positivity. The assumption is often that once a kid can talk about how he feels, he’s capable of operating and interpreting his feelings independently all the time. Kids with verbal skills haven’t lost the tendency that babies have, to pair internal signals with an adults’ affect, but adults forget how powerful their affect can be.

If we are angry, upset, stressed, or otherwise not in a good way, kids are predisposed to mirroring that emotion. If we ignore them, kids are more likely to ignore us. If we approach with kindness and attentiveness, however, kids quickly turn it around. They’re natural mirrors. They can be expected to be as engaged or disengaged as the people who have the strongest influence over them. 

Photo by Ksenia Chernaya on Pexels.com

What are we actually asking?

Stand here. Don’t touch anything. Walk this line. Don’t speak. Answer questions when I ask them. Move when I move. Keep your eyes forward. Stop asking questions. Stop your childlike sense of wonder and curiosity. Stop your imagination. Don’t play. Be a human doll until I ask you to respond, and then do as you’re trained, like a pet. 

This is what I hear when I hear adults say “You’re not listening.” 

Because “not listening” seems to entail a boatload of directions that kids are meant to intuit, deduce from the environment, or otherwise KNOW. 

For a kid to respond the way we’re hoping, we need to be clear, concise, calm, and compassionate. They haven’t learned the rules yet, but they are mostly hoping we’ll teach them. They WANT to do well. They just can’t intuit what you mean when you tell them they’re failing.

Realistic Expectations

We also need to get back to basics on what we expect from children at various ages and stages.

Can this kid ever stand totally still? Is that developmentally appropriate for a kid his age? 

Do we really want this kid to stop asking us questions? For how long? 

Is this kid, for the most part, being self-guided and following the expected rules? 

What do we really need this kid to do, right now? If they continue to play with their toy without causing too much of a stir, is that enough? 

Are we accounting for how loud, how bright, how distracting, how bustling, how much is going on at this store? Do we remember how fun or how stressful it was to be in a new place when we spent most of your time inside the same 3 places? Is it fair to request more of a kid who is striving to understand, interpret, interact, behave, and take it all in?

We need to choose our battles and maintain realistic expectations based on past behavior, developmental ability, and the environment we’re in. 

Path to Success

The best that we can do for kids is to set them up to succeed more often than we chastise them for failing. A confident, happy kid is more attentive and capable than a sad, self-conscious one. If setting them up for success is not viable, distracting them is better than getting upset. Here are some examples of things that could have been said in the given scenarios:

“Please play with your toy on the shopping cart. The scanner needs to be left alone.”

“I need your help counting all of the items that I put into this bag.

“You’ve kept your hands on the cart the whole time — that’s great! Can you keep your dinosaur on the cart too?” 

“I’m having a stressful day. Please keep listening for my directions. Thank you for helping me shop.”

“Please stay by my side and hold onto my shirt. You’ve been pretty close to me, but it would be better if you would stay closer.” 

“I love when you ask me questions, but I have a headache and can’t answer your questions now. If you remember, ask me later on.”

“When we’re in a store like this one, we need to pay really close attention to each other. Please follow my directions and stay close enough to touch me. I know I can depend on you to follow my directions. You are a great listener.”

“Can you count how many pieces of candy you can see? How many shoes? How many bottles of water? 

“Can you say the ABCs for me while I finish this transaction?” 

“When we leave the store, I’m going to ask you to name three of your favorite movies. Think about them now, and when I ask later, you can tell me about them.” 

Photo by Andrea Piacquadio on Pexels.com

Every Interaction Guides Them

Kids learn and adapt quickly. The exceedingly neuroplastic nature of their brains makes rapid development possible, and also makes them sponges for change. 

If we find ourselves setting a poor tone, we are only an interaction or two away from fixing it, especially with very young ones. They look to us for guidance. We show them how to be. Should they communicate their needs or bark commands? Should they ask for help or demand it? Should they expect the impossible of those around them? They’ll only know how to do as we do.

If we’re able to objectively view ourselves and alter our own behavior, we help them develop in the ways we intend. We create a brighter world full of more empathetic, communicative, attentive individuals with self-awareness and emotional range. Isn’t that what we’re all striving for? 

Safe Travels, Christopher Robin

Featured

Hope is all that’s left when you’ve tried your best and nature takes its course.

It was early morning, mid-May, on an unseasonably gray day. Sheets of rain were clattering on my car as I drove to my client’s house. The drive to M’s house was always a thoughtful one, and I was anxious about what I was going to say when I got there.

 I enjoyed the in-home therapeutic sessions I did with autistic kids, without exception. I thrived in an environment that was at times improvisatory and at times highly structured, and I spent my nights and weekends devising appropriate and meaningful interventions to help them reach their goals. We always made progress together. The families I worked with looked to me in different ways — as a counselor, a teacher, a confidant, a sitter — and, following all scientific evidence, all available resources, and my body of clinical experience, I attempted to impart lessons about building relationships, enhancing quality of life, and maintaining a growth mindset. 

It wasn’t just about identifying patterns, sequencing stories, or saying please. It was always about teaching exceedingly complex and particular ideas that could open new pathways of communication and understanding for them and their family.

Photo by Compare Fibre on Unsplash

M’s case was a particularly difficult one, which is why I was chosen by the agency to work with him and his mom, G. My experience and multidisciplinary approach, along with my patience and compassion, would be needed. G’s primary concern was that her teenaged, autistic son was missing a lot of school, “throwing tantrums” (her words) right before he had to get on the bus. I’d been working with M for a few months on creating a consistent routine, using musical cues to prompt and reinforce him through donning his shoes and jacket, and eliciting conversation about things that might happen during the day. Our efforts were variably successful — we might build a streak of eight school days, but the “tantrums” would return. 

In cases like these, it was important to look at the antecedent and reinforcing behaviors — what was leading up to and what was following — M’s seemingly sudden, strong refusal to go, which, when paired with both G and M becoming agitated, then led to a meltdown. 

There are myriad factors that influence every decision, action and reaction for an autistic person. These are in addition to the physiological reactions they may experience at greater or lesser magnitudes than their neurotypical counterparts, and in addition to the potential difficulties identifying or communicating their needs, preferences, and anxieties. If, like M, they struggle to verbally identify their needs, environmental controls are put in place to narrow down what may be leading to the issue at hand, in conjunction with attempting new pathways of communication and creating or enhancing a sense of self (self-awareness.) 

To my most objective observations, there was one clear and unfortunate obstacle to M building a consistent routine and finding regular comfort and success with the primary objective.

Photo by Ryoji Iwata on Unsplash

G was that obstacle, the only reason the case was so difficult for me, and the cause of my concern as I drove to session that day. A parent’s impact on their child is always complicated and difficult to view objectively, but I’d already seen and heard too many markers for concern. 

For all of the time I spent explaining to G that her son was capable of learning, that he had shown signs of improvement, and that progress would at the very least require her to maintain emotional stability during the transitional time, G showed very little desire to learn or adapt. She would listen raptly through my explanations, then immediately launch into an unrelated story about how difficult M could be, how he’d made a mistake earlier in the week, or how she’d had to miss work again. M and I could be having a peaceful conversation at the breakfast table, when G would enter the room, complain loudly that M “better not pull something today”, and then lay out a complicated series of punishments and prizes he could expect depending on how he acted. 

It was baffling and deplorable. I struggled to steady myself as I neared the house. Five miles to go. Deep breaths. More presence of mind. It would be a difficult conversation. As a therapist, it was my job to maintain objectivity, a professional demeanor, and an emotional distance, all while advocating for M. Focus on the particulars, not the ideals. Move one tree at a time, don’t attempt to demolish the entire forest in a sweeping overaction. Four miles to go.

Photo by Brett Jordan on Unsplash

 In some ways, G was treating her teenaged son like a forever-baby and worse. She believed he would never learn, never cease “throwing tantrums”, and never be anything less than her burden to bear. She jumped in to speak for him when he hesitated, so he often remained silent when she was around. She spoke about him in the third person while he was in the room. She refused to teach or let him learn about his changing, teenaged body, and she allowed him to cuddle beside her in her bed on a regular basis. 

In other ways, G seemed to think M should act like an adult. 

“He’s doing this to challenge me,” she’d say at the top of her voice, while he jumped under her covers in her bedroom to escape the bus. 

“I know you know what you’re doing to me,” she’d cajole, as he lay face-down on the carpet in the foyer. 

“Lori (me) is very mad at you,” she’d growl, while I stared at her incredulously, shaking my head vigorously and making x’s with my arms. 

“If you don’t go to school today, I won’t let you have your iPad on Saturday, which you earned yesterday for doing such a good job, and then Lisa (sitter) will be very upset with you and she won’t take you to play basketball like I promised yesterday,” she’d threaten and bribe simultaneously. 

Then, when he inevitably missed the bus, G would wring her hands and wax happily nostalgic for a time when he was smaller, easier to carry around, easier to control, and not so challenging. G knew M was listening, hiding at the top of the stairs or in the next room, but could not see that her own attitude might be creating the problem at hand, or at the very least complicating it. 

Photo by Joshua Hoehne on Unsplash

On this bleak and brisk day, I was going to insist that G remove herself entirely from the situation for the foreseeable future. M was capable of waking up, getting dressed, brushing his teeth, and eating breakfast independently. I’d be there to help with his shoes, jacket, and getting on the bus. I rehearsed the words in my head over and over again on the drive that day. 

“At this point, and given everything we’ve seen, the treatment team has decided collectively on a path moving forward.” I planned to pause here, and take a breath. Then, “To understand M’s needs and challenges while transitioning to the bus, we need you to remove yourself from the environment. You can stay in your room with the door closed, or take a walk in the neighborhood, or sit in the backyard obliviously. But under no circumstance can you continue to be present in the kitchen, foyer, or living room while M and I are in session. Mothers have a very powerful effect on their children, and it would be good to know how your presence may be influencing him.” I expected she would be distraught about this and argue, but thought I might be able to get her to commit to being absent on a trial basis to gather data.  

Photo by Daria Rudyk on Unsplash

I knew M wouldn’t automatically cease having trouble boarding the bus, but I absolutely needed to control for the most caustic and unpredictable variable in the room. I was confident that if she would allow for this change, I could begin to understand the situation. 

I was shaken from my rationalizing suddenly. The black SUV several car lengths ahead on this busy, suburban street hydroplaned and skidded to a stop. Into the SUV’s driver’s side door, an American Robin (AMRO) dove with spectacular force, turning to his side at the last minute. Even with my radio on and the sound of the pelting rain on my car’s roof, I heard the collision. 

Flying in the rain is particularly dangerous for birds for two reasons. Smaller birds risk trapping water among the air pockets of their feathers and contracting hypothermia. Larger birds struggle to get enough aerodynamic lift in the dense air of low-pressure systems. I suspect that this robin was suffering the latter on this rainy, spring day.

Photo by Kiarash Mansouri on Unsplash

My heart was breaking. I slowly drove past the robin as he lay in the center of the road. I didn’t know if he was alive or dead, but I knew that he could easily be crushed by someone swerving to avoid the poorly draining shoulders. One short block past, panicked, I pulled a tight U-turn. I’d never be able to forgive myself if I didn’t go back. He didn’t deserve to die in the street like that. I threw my hazards on and jumped out into the road.

Drenching in the downpour, I scooped up the robin in canvas I normally used for school supplies. The AMRO was alive, stunned but present. I wrapped him carefully, held him gingerly, and drove with one hand to the nearest side street. I snapped a quick pic and texted a friend who owned a few canaries (They did not respond in time to assist.) I’m not a veterinarian or bird expert by any means, but the Amro seemed to be alright. His feet and wings all seemed in tact and at the proper angles. Though he was stock still, his eye blinked occasionally and seemed to follow my face. With no time to take him to a hospital, I made the difficult decision to place him between a bush and a giant oak tree, nestled between the visible roots. I jumped back in my car, shaken, and dried off as I drove the last mile or so to M’s house.

Photo by Lori Siesto, Author

I wish I could say that I successfully communicated the plan to G, but M was already beginning to make refusals when I arrived. I gathered myself, apologized for my lateness quickly, and succeeded in helping M calm from a screaming wail to a slow sob as the bus pulled away. He had chosen independently to go to his own room, rather than his mother’s bed, and I was optimistic that the sessions might be having a positive effect. 

When I returned to the kitchen, G had some news. Due to M’s many absences, she’d been informed that he would have to repeat his current grade level. The school had recommended he continue attending for the remaining month or so, for stability. To minimize her stress, she whispered, she’d decided just today, just now, to remove him from school entirely and start fresh in the fall. She couldn’t do it anymore. She’d already been in the process of buying a new condo in another state. A new school, a new state, and new friends would do M good. Wouldn’t that be nice, to start over? She was musing, I was fuming.

For a teenager that had difficulty transitioning from his home to the bus, I wondered what made her confident that he would transition easily from his home to another, newer, far away home, a new school, and entirely new people. I managed to gently mention something to that effect, despite the bile that was rising within me. She pretended not to hear me and said she was looking forward to selling their current home. Then, she terminated our sessions. 

Photo by NON on Unsplash

Typically, I insisted on several sessions prior to termination, in order to help ease the transition. It could be very harmful to simply pull a kid from his therapist, then his school, his friends, and his home. He should be offered the opportunity to prepare himself for the change and to say goodbye properly. G announced it would be unnecessary. He would not be taking the bus any longer, so my services were no longer required. I did my best to say goodbye to M, who did not understand that it was the last time he’d ever see me. G lifted his wrist and shook it back and forth to approximate him waving, something he had done many times on his own. 

The hottest, most enraging tears mingled with the bone chilling rain as I returned to my car, defeated. 

After taking notes and informing the team of what I’d learned, I drove back to where I’d placed the AMRO. I’d only been at M’s house for 20 minutes. Perhaps I could bring the AMRO to the wildlife vet or check to ensure he was still breathing.

Photo by Joel Swick on Unsplash

I approached the oak tree slowly, careful not to shock him. I crouched down over the root system to find… nothing. There was no trace of him. If he’d been eaten, there would have been feather fragments or tracks. In my heart, I knew he had survived. Perhaps he’d hopped into the bushes nearby or even found a crevice in the enormous oak in which to wait out the rain. 

I’ll never know if G went through with her grand reinvention, or if M ever found ways to cope with the changes, or with his self-centered, deluded mother. I am hopeful that as he grows up some of what we did together will stay with him and help him along his path. 

We may help save a life with our smallest acts of compassion, but we may never know the full effects of what our actions have wrought.