I experienced a small victory yesterday. Nothing monumental or even all that noteworthy in the greater scheme of things but with Josh, any victory is worth celebrating, so think of this post as a literary fist-pump.
There is always a fine line with Josh. Things might seem ok and you might be lulled in to a false sense of security because of this but he's pretty much on a tightrope day-in and day-out. His mood can change faster than you can blink and there are so many factors that can contribute to his ability to maintain composure or not, it's almost impossible to control. I try though, believe me, I try.
I think because of how traumatic it was when he was younger in going through the really monstrous tantrums (see "That woman with the screaming kid"), I have this survival instinct that kicks in now whenever it looks like he might be heading in that direction - anything I can do to keep it from happening, I will do. All within reason though, and often there are things that he wants me to do that might at first look like they will help but I know from experience that they will only feed in to his down-cycle. There is this balance that I try really hard to maintain.
Which brings us to yesterday afternoon. In the "Do You Want Fries With That?" post I talked about his constant desire for fries and how we frequent the local drive-throughs more than I would ever imagine under normal circumstances. I won't do it every day though, despite the fact that that is exactly what he wants, there is a limit to how much I am willing to indulge this obsession. It's a self imposed limit to be sure but all parenting decisions are, there's no science to this. We had stopped to get him fries on the way home from school the day before. So, I was not planning on stopping yesterday. He had other ideas though and I could tell from the moment his teacher brought him out to me after school that this was going to be a tough ride home. "French fries" was the first thing he said to me. He gets one of two responses from me when this happens, either "yes, we're going to get french fries now" or "we're going to get french fries *insert time frame or day of the week here* ". So yesterday it was the latter. He wasn't going for it. "French fries?" "we'll get some this weekend, ok? right now we're just going home" Yesterday was one of those days when I suppose it's all he'd been thinking about. He continued. "French fries?" "Josh, we'll get french fries sometime this weekend, right now we have to go home". He persisted about a dozen more times. My response was the same every time. It has to be, and there can be no hesitation either. If he has any indication that you might be wavering, that there's a chink in your armor, any weakness in your resolve, he will exploit it to the fullest extent of his abilities. You will go down. I know this about him. It's happened enough, I should. There are days when it is harder for me to be steadfast, depending upon what else might be going on. He knows it. He will crank it up 10 notches if he thinks he can break me.
Even if you don't have an autistic child, you might be familiar with this if you are a parent and your kids have been through toddler-hood. Toddlers are excellent at this mode of operation, their skills in breaking down even the strongest of wills are legendary. Most of them, anyway. They will dig in for the long haul and wear you down until you are left whimpering in a corner if you're not careful. Josh has taken these skills and honed them over the years, fine tuned them to the point of being a master. I think most major criminal or terrorist investigations would be settled much faster by simply putting any suspects alone in a room with Josh without access to Blue's Clues or fries for a few days - I'd be willing to bet they'll be telling you if Bin Laden wears boxers or briefs within hours (I'm probably going to end up on some watch list for that... ).
Back to our story - I didn't have Zach with me yesterday, he'd finished school at lunch time because yesterday was his last day, so he was at home. It's always much more stressful when Zach is there because I know that Josh will get out of his seat in the car and go after Zach to pinch him if he's really mad that I am not stopping. I don't want Zach getting hurt or to have to deal with that, Josh knows this, so he uses it to its full potential. But no Zach to worry about this time so, I was feeling stronger in my resolve. I remained calm and consistent in my responses to his repeated requests for fries. Now, even if Zach is not in the car with us, Josh will still climb out of his seat if he's upset enough, sometimes he will even try to come after me with the pinching while I'm driving. This is bad on so many levels. So on days when I have not stopped for him there are times when I have to pull over somewhere to try to get him back in his seat and buckled up again. There are not very many safe spots for me to do this between his school and home so it's tricky, not to mention wildly stressful. There are a couple of things that he will accept in lieu of the fries though, sometimes, under the right conditions. M&M's, or Skittles candies. Giving him these instead will only work if a. the passage of the candy to him is continuous, and b. we don't have to sit for more than a second or two at any lights. Is feeding him M&M's or Skittles really any better than just stopping and getting him fries again? Probably not. Seriously, don't throw logic at me, this is not a logical world I live in! Whatever, it makes me feel better to know I have not fed him fast food fries 7 days in a row.
I cannot just give him the bag of candy and let him take them himself because despite the fact that he can dismantle a box spring with his bare hands and move his mattress around the house, he cannot seem to hang on to a bag of anything without dropping it on the floor of the car. Great, then he'll be out of his seat scouring the floor for Skittles. So, I have to be the purveyor of the candy. This means putting my right shoulder through some interesting contortions since his seat is directly behind mine.
Yesterday, he was on his game. He's like a machine, the requests for fries coming one after the other without regard for my response. He was determined and relentless. The other rules of engagement here are that you cannot let him sense your fear or stress. He picks up on it, feeds on it, and steps it up, his voice getting louder, higher pitched, the humming in between requests - all warning signs of an impending, full-on tantrum. You cannot ignore him either, you will get the same result. I was prepared. We got in to the car, I told him he could have M&M's instead, so he switched in to M&M request mode. I've barely handed a couple back to him when he's asking for them again. I know I have to maintain the supply or it's over. Driving while handing candy back to the child immediately behind you isn't always easy, also, I think I may have a rotator cuff injury.
We're on our way, he's ok so far, I'm handing the M&M's back with every request. There are several lights we have to go through on the way home. Getting stopped at any of the first three is pretty much a death sentence on his staying tantrum-free if we are not stopping. We made the first light. The second is the real test, it is a very busy intersection with a very long light - and the establishment where we will stop for the fries if we are doing so, is right there. Taunting us. I'm very familiar with the timing of the lights so I wasn't sure if we were going to make it or not. Please please please.... it turned yellow just as I hit the intersection. Yellow isn't red. I went through. He sees the home of the fries, I pass him back a handful of M&M's even before he asked, the car is moving, he doesn't lose it. Thank you thank you thank you. Ok, one more light, wow, made it through that one too, a very rare event. The stars must be lined up just right. I keep the flow of M&M's constant. When we get to a certain point on the way home, he stops asking for them so much and I can relax. We made it. Home without stopping for fries, without having to pull over to get Josh back in his seat only to have it happen again 5 seconds later, without getting pinched or having the air-vents (what's left of them, anyway) kicked in any further, without worrying about getting stopped because someone saw Josh climb out of his seat and go after his brother or me, just home. Josh with a belly full of M&M's, me with a small sense of victory and relief.
Until we have to do it again on Monday.