Our Lives

Mother of autistic son finds parenting gets harder as children grow older

September 21, 2013 

At two in the morning, a loud, repeated banging noise woke up Greg and me.

Kenny was kicking the wall between his bedroom and ours. I got up and asked him what was wrong, trying to keep my voice steady and calm even though I was – understandably, I think – seriously annoyed.

Kenny didn’t say anything. Instead, he started hitting himself, open palm and hard as he could, on the top of his head. When I sat next to him on his bed to try to calm him down, he wrapped one arm tightly around my neck, pulling me so close that my head shook each time he smacked his own.

Greg heard me yelling at Kenny to let go, so he rushed into the room and pried Kenny’s arm loose. We then spent the next hour calming him down and getting him back to bed.

In our family, physical aggression is, sadly, part of the reality of raising two boys with autism. I’ve taken my share of knocks – I’m a big girl; I can handle it. But seeing my child purposely hurt himself is much more painful and much more frightening.

It started in January. Kenny got upset because I said no to something he wanted, and he started bopping himself on the head.

I was desperate to get him to stop. Anything you want, I told him. I will give you anything or take you anywhere or do anything … just please, baby, please stop.

The hitting became more frequent and intense. It was soon joined by screaming – an ear-piercing shriek we could probably sell to Hollywood for horror movies if we recorded it. He put several holes in his bedroom walls. We had to replace the door to his room after he slammed it so hard it came off the hinges. At summer camp, he broke a window.

The emergence or escalation of self-injurious behavior and aggression with the onset of puberty is not uncommon for children with autism. Kenny just turned 14, and right now, puberty seems like an incredibly cruel biological joke. All of his emotions are amped up on hormones just as his body is getting bigger and stronger. He used to be a kid who could take no for an answer. Now, he frequently gets frustrated and angry, and not knowing what do with all of that negative emotion, he takes it out on himself and sometimes others.

We are working with professionals to come up with strategies to stop him from hurting himself or breaking more stuff. In the meantime, the primary way we deal with his tantrums is to do the exact opposite of our first instincts. Instead of trying to appease him, we crack down. We order him to go to his room and stay there until he calms down. If he tries to grab or hit us, we push him away, getting louder and angrier, often until Kenny is in tears.

What really sucks about this approach is that it works. When we tried to make Kenny feel better, his tantrums went on and on. If I got close enough to try to comfort him with hugs, I usually ended up getting hurt.

But being firm and even angry shuts the whole drama down. He cries, calms down, and within 10 or 15 minutes, it’s over.

This is not how I want to parent. I know this approach isn’t helping him learn to deal with the anger that causes these outbursts. We must teach him those coping skills; he won’t be able to make it through adulthood without them. We just haven’t figured out how yet. We’re working on it.

In the meantime, we figure out ways to get through each day. We rarely take Kenny out to new places anymore because, obviously, our go-to-your-room strategy doesn’t work in public. When we do go somewhere new as a family, we take two cars in case his brother, Theo, wants to stay but Kenny demands to leave.

I will confess that for me, this has been one of the hardest trials we’ve faced. Or maybe it’s not actually harder; maybe I’m just older and more tired. I have found that while my love for my children never diminishes, it does get weary. Sometimes even love needs a break from having to work so hard.

But… but what? Such is life? So be it? Que sera sera? Pick a cliché.

Love perseveres. And tomorrow is another day.

Morris: diane.e.morris@gmail.com

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