This morning I lost my temper with Martin. I’m not pleased about losing by temper, but it happened.
We were in the last stages of getting ready to leave for school—which for us, 90% of the mornings, means getting ready to be late for school. I had executed the morning routine well, and despite extreme dawdling during breakfast, we managed to reserve 20 minutes to get Martin dressed, hair-combed, teeth-brushed, and jacket-clad. He took eight minutes of that time to sit on the toilet and yell, “Privacy please!” every time I knocked. Five minutes or so were devoted to dodging my attempts to get him dressed and instead asking senseless “What if?” and “Would you want?” questions: What if you’re in a restaurant and the host takes your drink order but then the waiter brings you the drink? Would you want to eat at a restaurant like that? What if two hockey teams are playing each other and wearing the same uniform so you can’t tell them apart? Would you want to watch a game like that? More time was wasted as Martin grabbed his freshly cleaned glasses by the lenses, so that I had to return to the kitchen for another lens-cleaning wipe. When I asked him to brush his teeth, he was chit-chatting instead of paying attention, so he went to the sink and washed his hands. Then he insisted on another trip to the toilet, after which he returned to the sink with his pants around his ankles. When I told him, “Pull up your pants so we can leave,” he heard only “pants” and so, without further thought, used his feet to take off the pants.
That’s when I lost it.
“Martin!” I barked. “You have got to pay attention! Sometimes you must listen! We cannot be late to school every single day!”
He laughed, which he does when he’s nervous, or overwhelmed.
I grabbed the pants off the floor and thrust them into his arms. “Put on these pants! We have got to leave!”
He clutched the pants and averted his eyes. We had passed the point of meaningful communication.
Realizing that I needed to cool down, I left Martin in the bathroom and returned to the kitchen.
Now I was the one overwhelmed.
I felt agitation. A lot of agitation.
I’ve written before that, when we are late, the problem is me. That’s true. But on this occasion—if I may plead my case—I had done everything right. I got up on time, 5:40 a.m. Adrian’s bento boxes were prepared last night; all I needed to do this morning was heat his lentils. Martin’s veggie-meatballs (turkey) were ready last night, too; all I needed to do this morning was pop them in the oven. Beans were in the coffee maker, for Adrian’s coffee; all I needed to do was add water. My Bodum pot stood ready, with Hobee’s tea already in the steel basket (I’m off coffee, stupid heartburn!); all I needed to do was add boiling water. Even Martin’s breakfast was half-prepared; I cleaned and grated the sweet potatoes for his fritters last night, and packed them in ice water. Martin was done with breakfast and in the bathroom at 7:50 a.m., 20 minutes before our scheduled 8:10 a.m. departure.
Despite all that preparation, we were going to be late for school. Again.
It took only a few deep breaths before my agitation gave way to disappointment, in myself, for having lost my temper.
Two memories came to mind.
First, a passage from Naoki Higashida’s wonderful book The Reason I Jump. The teenage author, who is mostly non-verbal and uses a keypad to communicate, writes (of himself and others with autism):
Me, I’m always being told off for doing the same old things. It may look as if we’re being bad out of naughtiness, but honestly, we’re not. When we’re being told off, we feel terrible that we’ve done what we’ve been told not to. But when the chance comes once more, we’ve pretty much forgotten about the last time and we just get carried away yet again. . . . But please, whatever you do, don’t give up on us. We need your help.
Second, an experience on a New York City subway. One night, after a theater date with friends, Adrian and I were on the subway after midnight, seated across from a woman and a toddler. This story is not meant to judge the adult (mother?) for traveling after midnight with a toddler. She may well have left a second-shift job and retrieved the girl from a sitter, or tended to a family emergency without notice. The little girl was obviously exhausted. She held herself together for two or three stops, then started to cry. The woman said, “Cut it out!” Her tone was menacing. The toddler stopped the tears momentarily, whimpered, and started crying again. The woman grabbed and shook the girl’s chin and yelled, “You ain’t got nothing to cry about.” Finally she threatened to slap the girl. Without saying anything, I stood up. I don’t know what I meant by standing up, maybe just to suggest that other adults were present and were prepared to intervene. The woman scowled and fell silent. Somehow, the little girl stopped crying, and the moment passed.
My heart went out to the girl. “She can’t help it!” I wanted to say. I should have said. What toddler could be awake after midnight and control her behavior?
That’s Naoki Higashida’s point, too, I gather: What child with autism (or in our case now, ADHD) can conform his behavior to neurotypical specifications?
The fault that we are late is Martin’s, I thought, but it isn’t his fault that he’s at fault.
Does that even make sense?
I returned to the bathroom and apologized for raising my voice. I was frustrated at being late, I said. I wasn’t angry at him. I knew he was trying. I was glad his pants were on again. How about if I helped him tie his sneakers?
Martin sought two or three assurances that I wasn’t angry. I gave the assurances.
We were late to school again. The world didn’t end.