Jack is 15. He’s in a high school Magnet program for science and math. It’s a wonderful program—too bad he’s not there. The last day he made it to school was at the end of August. School started on August 14, and he missed one day during the first week because he didn’t feel well. The next week, he missed two days because his stomach was bothering him. The week after that he came down with a bad cold, and then his stomach got worse. We have some variation of this pattern at the beginning of every school year, and I’m sure it’s due, at least in part, to the stress of coming back to all the noise, commotion, and structure of school after a quiet summer.
I get an earful from so many parents about how they send their kids to school no matter what, but when we send Jack to school on these days, we pay the price—failed tests, teachers saying “he appeared to be listening but he didn’t do anything he was told”, him telling us he didn’t remember anything, meltdowns (or perhaps “shutdowns” is a more accurate term here) and the list goes on. More often than not, Jack’s absences are due to stomach complaints—a problem familiar to many Aspies—and they started in First Grade. That year, Jack’s appetite went to almost nothing, and his stomach became bloated and distended—like that of an Ethiopian poster child. The doctor ran numerous tests. Everything came back normal, with one exception—turns out Jack had pharyngeal dysphagia. That’s another story, another time.
Should I Feel Guilty?
Back to now. Jack has been complaining for weeks of nonstop stomach cramping—saying it hurts to stand up straight, sit up straight, and walk without bending over. His biggest fear at school was that he wouldn’t be able to make it from class to class. Déjà vu. We’ve now had 3 rounds of blood work and so far, all we’ve learned is that he has a Vitamin D deficiency. We’ve started him on a supplement and are scheduled to see the GI on Oct. 4th, the soonest they could take us. So this could be IBS, or Crohn’s Disease, or stress.
Meanwhile, Jack is falling behind in school. So far, the school has been very gracious about working with us, but my patience is running thin with Jack. Why? Because he has the energy to play World of Warcraft (WoW) all afternoon and evening but not to do his school work. To say that this has stressed me out would be a gargantuan understatement. I’ve been through a bottle of Gaviscon and am now a week into Prilosec trying to control the heartburn. And I’m torn between feeling bad for Jack (what if this turns out to be Crohn’s or worse?) and feeling like the parent from hell, letting my kid miss school so he and his computer can stay plastered to each other all day. We’ve had battles—lots and lots of battles—with me telling him that all the sitting is only making him worse, trying in vain to cut his computer hours, yelling at him, willing myself to use “tough love”, threatening to turn off his WoW subscription, and so on. In a nutshell, I’m trying all the things that are completely meaningless to him and only serve, in the end, to agitate him more, and me.
The Battle Plan: Shut Down WoW
Last night, we had another big blowout. We’ve been intermittently taking Jack to school for make-up tests and to meet with teachers. He was supposed to take tests in Latin and math today, so we said that if he didn’t get at least an 80 on each test, we were cutting off his WoW subscription. I’ll digress here for a moment to say that Jack has an IQ of 143, so theoretically these tests should not be a problem. Since Jack doesn’t remember things well when under duress, we wrote down our terms and had him sign the sheet of paper to acknowledge he’d read it. In addition to the tests, Jack has large packets of make-up work in both classes and he hadn’t started on either of them—he told us he’d do these today.
Today, Jack slept in, didn’t do the homework, and said he felt too ill to go in and take the tests. I braced all day for what was coming—the massive battle, followed by an epic meltdown when we shut down his access to WoW this evening. I realized, as often happens, that we’d left a gaping loophole in our agreement of the night before, and Jack is the king of finding loopholes to rationalize things to his advantage. We’d said we’d turn off WoW if he didn’t do well on the tests, but we forgot to stipulate what would happen if he didn’t take the tests at all. He had us on that one, but I also knew I wasn’t ready to give up that easily. In my opinion, if Jack could play WoW, he could just as easily be doing school work. End of story.
My Prep Strategy: Seek Out Opinions of People I Trust
Whenever I know these battles are coming, I arm myself by talking to people who are relevant to the situation at hand. At this particular juncture in our lives, my thoughts often run along the lines of “How much is this behavior is due to my kid being a typical obstinate, stubborn teenage boy who thinks he knows everything, and how much of this behavior can be attributed to Asperger’s?” It’s a fine line these days between the two, very fine indeed, and it often leaves me scratching my chin. Oh, how I wish I had the answer, but I know it will continue to evade me. However….to help me proceed as best I could, I called two people – my cousin, who has raised 4 kids (3 boys and a girl) to adulthood, and Matt, one of the doctors we currently go to – a specialist at the Autism Center.
To my cousin, I asked these questions: What consequences worked best when your kids got REALLY defiant? How would you describe their behavior in terms of how they reacted to you, and what was the worst you saw? (I wanted some gauge of what was in the realm of normal here) How did you get them to do their homework? What advice can you give me?
Her answers: Taking away the car keys worked best (my son has no desire to drive, so that one won’t work for us), followed by taking away computer game access—though she noted that her kids got very crafty about getting around that one (sneaking onto the computer at 3 a.m., setting the monitor to go black when she walked by, etc). She said their behavior could be extremely defiant and disrespectful—just think “budding adult in the early stages of trying to cut the ties to Mom and Dad”. The worst she saw? One of her boys knocked a hole in the sheet rock in the bathroom, though his “story” was that he was sitting on the toilet, lost his balance, and “fell” into the sheetrock—he. he. Ironically, she said that while she was very angry about this incident, it would have been worse if a neighbor hadn’t just informed her that his son had done the same thing. Lest you think my cousin has raised a houseful of ruffians, I should add here that her sons are now dentists and her daughter is a teacher, and they are all exceedingly nice (and have not attacked any more sheet rock). My cousin also said that to get her kids to do homework, she often had to sit behind them until it was done—the lure of computer games was just too strong to leave them trying to do their work sans a chaperone. And her advice? Hold your ground, understand that you may have to temporarily drop your expectations as to how respectful your kids will be when they’re acting out, and don’t get so emotionally pulled into all the battles that you tie yourself into knots. Good advice from someone who has been there.
So, I braced even more for the battle of the evening. I knew it was coming, and it was going to suck (excuse my French here). I kept mentally rehearsing how it could play out, and, I confess, I sipped on a small glass of wine while fixing dinner to help calm my nerves. My husband came home. We talked through what was to come. He went up to check on my son, who was, of course, playing WoW, and confirmed that Jack hadn’t done any homework. He reminded Jack about the contract from last night, told Jack, “I’m really sorry, but you’re making me do this to you”, and left the room. We braced even more for what was to come, reassuring ourselves that it was for the best.
We sat down to dinner. I figured it was best to eat first, since who knew what the night would bring. Actually, I had a pretty good visual of what the night would bring, so I figured I needed my strength. We started eating. We talked. We were almost done. The fateful time drew nearer… And then, the phone rang. It was the Matt, the psychologist.
I told him what was going on, and laid out our plan of attack. I knew we were going to catch serious grief about the loophole (being that Jack never went to school to take his tests), and I asked the doctor for any advice he had regarding our complete cut-off of access to WoW. Matt’s answer was not what I expected, and he warned me as such before telling me. He pointed out that for those on the spectrum, and most especially for high-functioning folks on the spectrum, there is a constant sense of being out of control. They don’t have much control over the sensory bombardment that comes at them every day from all directions, and they don’t have control over people’s reactions to them since they don’t pick up on social cues or body language. In Jack’s case, he pointed out, even his body was now out of control. In this scenario, WoW was the one realm where Jack still felt in control. He knew what was going to happen, he knew how to react, he knew that the world of WoW was very predictable.
Matt went on to say that while this was not what he would typically recommend for his patients, we needed to consider Jack’s case on an individual basis. And in this scenario, his opinion was that setting the stage for a massive battle would do more harm than good. His advice? Let Jack play WoW for a few more days until his next appointment, and lay off on stressing about the homework. At our appointment next Tuesday, he’d start working with Jack on negotiating a plan and a schedule for homework and we’d go from there. In the meantime, he suggested that we write a note to Jack expressing our concerns about his school work and leave it at that.
So, for now, it’s a quiet evening. My husband is asleep, Jack is upstairs playing WoW, and I’m sitting here listening to peaceful music, writing, and getting sleepier by the second. The epic battle has been postponed, or maybe prevented (I won’t hold my breath on that one). I’m headed off to bed, while Jack’s busy at war. Wow. Whew. For now.