Crying Under Control. Discipline, Not So Much

When Martin launches a crying fit—usually because he doesn’t want to do whatever we’re about to do, like eat dinner, or put on clothes—I kneel, hold his hands in my left hand, raise my right index finger a few inches from his face, assume a stern expression, and look directly into his eyes, even if he avoids mine.

The desired effect of this is that, after a few seconds, Martin will say, “No crying,” sniffle, and regain control. The method succeeds in about 60% of tantrums.

If sternly raising my finger fails, then I direct Martin to the “crying spot.” At home, the crying spot is one end of our sofa. Anywhere else, the crying spot is wherever I indicate. (“That bench is a crying spot. Do you need to sit in the crying spot?”) Either the threat of the crying stop suffices to stanch the tears, or Martin sits (remarkably, he stays put) until he’s calmed down.

This method has tamed Martin’s tantrums. So yay! Yay for me and Martin.

Then there is discipline, which is a decided boo! Boo for me and Martin.

I have yet to find an effective way to discipline Martin. I use time-outs, of course, and they accomplish nada. (Of course?) Martin perches on the stair landing, our designated time-out spot, until the kitchen timer sounds, then leaps up, yells “Sorry!”, and goes about his business—his business being, often, to repeat whatever behavior just got him in time-out.

Of particular frustration is that Martin still lacks strong ability to read faces and emotions. I have trouble conveying genuine anger to him.

On our latest trip to Chicago, Martin and I pulled into a Whole Foods Market to buy food supplies. (We stay in a hotel “suite,” which offers a kitchenette where I prepare simple meals.) Martin, who was tired, rode in the cart. He asked to hold the ghee I selected.

“Be careful to hold on tight,” I said as I handed him the ghee. “That jar is glass. It will break if it falls.”

Martin needed a few reminders on that point. Nevertheless, we finished shopping and paid without incident. Back at the hotel, I unloaded the groceries onto the counter and informed Martin that we would head to his doctor’s as soon as I went potty.

I was doing just that when I heard a smash from the kitchenette.

Martin materialized in the bathroom doorway, smiling. “It fell,” he said.

What ‘fell’?”

He giggled and scampered away. I finished up and within seconds was yelling—

No! No way. Get away from there. Now!

—as I seized Martin under the arms and yanked his stocking feet from a pile of ghee-slicked glass shards. The evidence was indisputable: Martin had taken the ghee jar from the center of the counter and dropped it onto the tile floor. At the least. More likely still, Martin had thrown the jar.

I was furious. I marched Martin directly to the sofa for a time out. He lolled merrily there whilst I tried to use paper towels gather glass and ghee, and then he accompanied me to the front desk, where I sheepishly requested that our freshly cleaned kitchenette be re-cleaned. He evinced no remorse. To the contrary, notwithstanding my scolding, he appeared downright gleeful.

Readers, if you have suggestions, on how I might get Maritn to understand when he’s in trouble—please, send them.

For my part, I’ll try to keep perspective and focus on Martin’s testing limits, which I understand is a positive and natural developmental stage (unlike, say, misreading emotions). The next day I recounted the ghee incident to a good friend, also mother to a toddler.

My friend laughed at me.

“Well,” she said, “you’re the one who wanted neurotypicality.”

Frustration Posting

Months ago, when Martin was having more trouble sleeping—if you’ve been reading for a while, you may remember this—I would sometimes draft posts during those long midnight hours, sitting in his room with an iPad. To myself, I called it “exhaustion posting,” and I knew it wasn’t a good idea. When it’s 3:00 a.m. and I’ve slept eight hours during the past 72, it doesn’t matter how much progress we’ve made overall or how bright the future looks. I will have nothing nice to say.

I’m about to do something else that the reasonable part of my brain (the part that gets overshadowed, often) knows is not a good idea. Let’s call it “frustration posting.”

Why am I frustration posting when I know I shouldn’t?

Because I’m frustrated.

We’re in the dumps again. Crapsville. The Land of No Focus. The State of Bad Digestion. Obsession City.

Autism territory.

When Adrian and I returned from vacation last week, Martin’s symptoms were, I thought, more pronounced than when we’d left. I concocted several explanations—change in routine without school, anguish at wondering if his parents would return, a stale supplementation routine—that allowed for easy solutions.

We’ve been home now six days. So far, the easy solutions have failed. (I’ll admit that I have not yet updated the supplementation. I have a call scheduled for Thursday to discuss that with Martin’s excellent Track Two doctor.) Martin’s belly is distended. He has diarrhea. He’s scratching. And the behavioral symptoms have become yet more pronounced.

Getting Martin fed and ready for school this morning was like weaving a basket from cooked spaghetti. Nothing worked. He lacked the attention to put food in his mouth, absent constant nagging. He had no language to express what he sought and reverted instead to “You wan’ you wan’ you wan, I wan’ I wan’,” without object or variation. He refused to stand long enough to get his pants down for the toilet, or to don a jacket for the New York winter; when I tried to accomplish those tasks, he threw himself against me or fell to the floor. Adrian, who takes Martin down to meet the school bus, later reported that Martin had been unable to engage in even simple conversation like providing his teacher’s name.

This evening was worse. Evenings used to be the most difficult part of my day, because as Martin grew tired, he grew unmanageable, even less able to read my signals or control himself. I thought those days were over. Today he arrived at 5:30 p.m. with a babysitter, utterly hyperactive, laughing without obvious reason, jumping on the sofa, darting from chair to stair to table. At 6:15, when the babysitter prepared to leave, Martin began screaming because she zipped her vest. That’s a special new highlight, this fixation on zippers. Once the poor sitter managed to escape, from 6:15 until bedtime was a near-unmitigated scream-and-cry fest, punctuated only by bites of dinner and senseless verbal demands. “You wan’ bath. You wan’ not bath. No. No. No. You wan’ counter. Mommy is coming back. She’s coming back. You wan’ go outside. Outside.” Every chance he got, he grabbed my cardigan and yanked the zipper down or pushed it up until it caught my hair or the skin of my neck. He left his plate and ran around. He slunk from chair to floor and refused to rise.

When I finally got him into bed he tried to insist on wearing the tight winter vest over his pajamas.

I probably should have indulged him. Instead I refused. Scream-and-cry fests diminish my empathy. Insofar as scream-and-cry fests are symptoms of something amiss within Martin, they should cause the opposite, i.e., a flood of empathy. In the world of reason, that would happen. In the world of frustration, it does not.

So there you have it. The bad with the good.

Right now I’m telling myself that we turned the tide in late November and early December, and that we can do so again now.

Right now I’m hoping for a better day tomorrow.

Right now I’m trying to breathe.