Thank God for Matt, the neuropsychologist we go to at the Autism Center. We met with him on Oct 2, and it felt a bit like manna from heaven after all the stress we’ve been through over the past several weeks. Actually, it also felt a bit like what I imagine a drug intervention would be, but given the circumstances, maybe that’s not so surprising.
We were there for about three hours, and I think we were all a bit mentally fried afterwards, but relieved as well. Matt first met with Jack, then with me and my husband, then with all of us, and finally one more time with Jack.
Matt pointed out that our progress with Jack would likely be painstakingly slow, but the important thing was to recognize when we were making progress. To that end, we needed to take small steps and celebrate the successes—no matter how small. We shouldn’t be surprised by setbacks because they would definitely happen.
We addressed 3 issues today:
- Getting Jack’s buy-in to get back on track with his school work, given that Jack has now missed over a month of school due to stomach pain. As I mentioned in my last blog, Jack was relatively on track with his work until about two weeks ago, when he started resisting the idea of doing school work. If I reminded him, he got angry with me, but if I didn’t remind him, he did nothing. We fell into a vicious cycle, and when I spoke to Matt on the phone last week, he said to drop even mentioning school work until after he met with Jack again.
- Getting Jack off the computer at a decent hour each night. Again, as mentioned before, Jack has dealt with his stress by playing World of Warcraft (WoW) every spare moment of the day and well into the evening, and he has been rude and resistant when we’ve tried to get him off. He vehemently wants to do nothing else but play WoW right now.
- Finding ways to stop the power struggles before they start. Any teenager will engage in power struggles with their parents—it’s part of growing up—but Aspie kids are like turning the dial up by 1,000. They will not budge, and that’s been very true of Jack when we’ve gotten into our power struggles of late. Last week, when we got into yet another round of it, Jack said something very rude to me and my husband insisted that he apologize. Jack said “Why?” My husband said “because what you just said was rude and disrespectful”. Jack said “Why?’, and this went around in circles with no one getting anywhere. Finally, my husband said, “Jack, are you going to apologize to your mother?” Jack folded his arms, looked up, and answered “No”. We’ve had lots of these moments lately, and we would never, under any circumstances, let our other son get away with this type of behavior. But with Jack, we haven’t found a consequence, punishment, or positive reward that will stop it. Matt noted that this was going to be a challenge with Jack—that no external rewards appealed to him strongly enough to cause him to change any of his behavioral patterns.
And here are the strategies we’re to start with…
Schoolwork/Homework (aka “To Grandma’s house we go…”)
One thing I’ve repeatedly suggested to Jack is that he be somewhere besides our house to do his school work. He associates home with rest, not school work, and we have the added distractions of his computer (which he often needs in order to do his work, but which also gives him access to WoW) and our three dogs. Last year, we tried having Jack stay after school to do his work, but that didn’t succeed. Jack would stay after with his teacher but wouldn’t get anything done, and when she asked if he needed help, he’d say “no”. The teacher ended up being extra frustrated because Jack would say he didn’t need help, but he wouldn’t finish the assignments or turn them in. Apparently, Jack needs more guided supervision to get his work done. This year, I’ve told Jack that I could either take him to the library or to my mom’s house (she lives just a few minutes from us), but he didn’t want to try those options.
So at the Tuesday session, Matt first set forth a plan whereby Jack will now go to my mom’s for 3 hours a day to start catching up on his school work. My mom has a quiet house, and her computer is far too archaic to support playing WoW (see—there are some definite benefits to sticking with older technologies!). If Jack says he can’t go to my mom’s house, then his nightly computer cut-off time gets pushed up by 2 ½ hours, and we are to remind him of that right when he says he can’t go over there. On the days when he does go to my mom’s, I am supposed to ask Jack what he completed when I pick him up. If he hasn’t done anything or if he tells us he has finished work that he hasn’t in fact finished, I’m not supposed to say anything at the time.
Every Tuesday night, we will now have a family meeting during which we will praise Jack for any of his successes, discuss any discrepancies between what he has done and what he says he has done, remind him of any longer-term projects, and address any concerns we have. Outside of these meetings, we are to discuss these items as little as possible, since doing so creates too much stress for Jack.
Ending the WoW War
Matt pointed out for kids on the autism spectrum, every moment of every day is about lack of control. Because they don’t understand social interactions, they constantly struggle to make sense of what people actually mean. They get bombarded by sensory overload at school and lots of other places. In short, they constantly feel as if they have no control, and so they seek control where they can find it. In that light, online games (or any computer games) feel like a safe haven. They have a positive side–providing social interaction with peers, improving speed and reaction times, and being very, very predictable. But they’re not, obviously, a place to reside 24/7.
Right now, we’re going to focus on pulling back on computer time, but in baby steps. Matt is going to draw up a contract for Jack before our next meeting, but in the meantime, he used part of the meeting time to go over some new rules with Jack. Here are the basics:
- Jack will be off the computer at 11:30 every night. We will set up our router so it shuts down at 11:30, and that’s that.
- If Jack doesn’t go to Grandma’s to do homework, then he must be off by 9:00. On those nights, we will alter the router so it shuts down at 9:00.
- We will remind Jack about 20 minutes before the cut-off point that his time will be up.
- We are to avoid power struggles about this as much as possible, which leads to…
Preventing Power Struggles
One of the really unpleasant aspects regarding our family dynamics of late has been that we repeatedly must remind Jack to do stuff. I despise the constant reminders, but if I don’t do them, whether it’s school work or coming to dinner or whatever, it doesn’t happen. However, Jack treats these reminders, no matter how gentle or pleasant, as if he’s being yelled at, and his mood becomes angry and put off. No matter my tone of voice, he’ll say things like, “Stop yelling at me!”, which is how he perceives anything he doesn’t want to hear.
Matt noted that at this juncture, our goal is to avoid power struggles, as they only exacerbate the situation. When we need Jack to do something, we are to remind him 15-20 minutes beforehand and then one more time a couple of minutes before the event. That’s it. We’re to report back to Matt on how successful this is. He pointed out to Jack that this entire agreement involved trust on both sides, and that if Jack was going to trust us to stick with two reminders, we needed to be able to trust that Jack would do what we said. By next week, we’ll have a contract—a draft of the new rules that Jack will sign once everyone was in agreement on them.
On a final note, I must say that’s one of the toughest challenges for me right now. It completely goes against my grain as a parent that I’ve got to have agreement and buy-in from my kid on family rules. With my other son, there’s little to no discussion on these matters, so it feels very, very wrong to be treating my “misbehaving” son like an equal in all of this. My knee-jerk parental reaction would be to cut off the WoW subscription, drastically limit Jack’s computer time, and stand over him while he completes his school work. But I know from past experience that in Jack’s case, those types of measures do nothing but backfire. Matt very much noted his feeling that pulling the WoW plug would do more harm than good right now. He said that the only way to get Jack to work with us will be to gain his buy-in, largely because Jack has no outside drivers or rewards strong enough to motivate him.
So we’ll see. But after this appointment, at least we have some goals to work toward, and everyone seemed in a better mood when we left to head home. The tension has, at least temporarily, subsided, and that’s a start.