Mommy Sticks

My family jokes that Martin is “momnmy-centric.” Very mommy-centric.

If I am in the vicinity, Martin is all about me. An interaction with another adult might transpire this way:

Adult, to Martin: “Martin, what did you do at school today?”

Martin, to me: “Mommy, did I go to school last Thursday?”

Me: “Martin, [other adult] asked you a question.”

Martin, to me: “We went to gym class.”

Me: “Can you tell that to [other adult]?”

Martin, to me: “No.”

Mommy-centric Martin needs to talk with me constantly, regardless of whether others are present. One particularly annoying derivative of constant talking is Martin’s anxious reliance on saying, “Mommy.” He might attach “Mommy” to continuous questions, related or unrelated, as in—

“Mommy, is today Friday? Mommy, is Freddie in the basement? Mommy, what am I having for dinner? Mommy? Mommy, is Daddy in the office? How do we spell ‘course’? Are we going on vacation next year, Mommy? Mommy, can you talk to me? Mommy?”

Other times there isn’t so much as even a question with the “Mommy.” He just calls “Mommy!” because he wants to know I’m present, or because he’s nervous, or because someone else has spoken to him, or because he needs to be talking but has nothing to say, or because—. If Martin is eating breakfast and I exit the kitchen, “Mommy!”, yelled from the table, will follow me down the hall. If Martin is playing and I go to the bathroom, I can expect at least four or five “Mommy!” cries before I reemerge. If I plead, “Martin, can you please stop saying ‘Mommy’ for a few minutes?”, he responds with something like, “I’m not going to talk at all. That’s it. I’m not going to talk at all! Mommy, should I not talk at all? Mommy?”

The habit is annoying, to be sure. Even more problematic, other children have started to notice and use it as a reason to tease Martin. At a birthday party not long ago (effin’ birthday parties!), Martin called to me non-stop from the table where the children sat to eat. By the time the pizza was cleared and cake arrived, a couple girls near Martin were mockingly yelling, “Mommy-mommy-mommy-mommy-mommy!” Martin’s cousins Luke and Rosie, who are visiting right now, say, “Oh, mommy-mommy” whenever Martin is absent and we mention his name.

Some behaviors demand radical solutions. Introducing: mommy sticks.

Each morning, since Sunday, I place a glass on the kitchen counter and fill it with 25 pipe cleaners, which I call mommy sticks. When Martin says “Mommy,” I remove one pipe cleaner. If, at bedtime, one or more sticks remain in the glass, Martin wins a surprise. Nothing major. An Angry Birds pencil. Stickers. A coin-sized plastic car. The prize isn’t that important; Martin likes to win, so incentive-based systems work well.

I don’t distinguish among uses of “Mommy.” It might, for example, be completely legitimate for Martin to yell, “Mommy! I think the stove is on fire,” or, “Mommy! Is the cat supposed to be eating off my dinner plate?” Still, doing so would cost him a mommy stick, just as much as randomly calling “Mommy” to the wind. My goal is to get Martin to think about why he’s saying “Mommy,” and whether doing so is worth a mommy stick, instead of vocalizing by habit.

So far, I’m giving two thumbs up to mommy sticks. Four days in a row, Martin has won the prize, and Adrian and I have noticed a marked decrease in “Mommy!” floating around the house. Yesterday, Martin snidely tempted fate; when he saw about a dozen sticks left, he looked directly at me and said, “Mommy. Mommy. Mommy, Mommy, Mommy.” I extracted five pipe cleaners. Still he met his goal. That moment notwithstanding, I hope the system continues to function.

And I wish all behaviors could be addressed this easily.

Oranges, bananas, apples, avocados, onions, and mommy sticks. That's the kitchen counter in our ASD household.

Oranges, bananas, apples, avocados, onions, and mommy sticks. That’s the kitchen counter in our ASD household.


Let me begin this post by stating that nothing written here is intended to make fun of Martin. This is a post about language, oral stimming, perseveration, and behaviors that, for the most part, are not within Martin’s control. Although some of the verbal stream I’m conveying may, in retrospect, come across as amusing, when this is happening—when Martin is saying these things, nonstop—nothing sounds funny. When Martin is saying these things, nonstop, I could never laugh because I am too busy trying to keep my head from exploding.

Martin has been talking a blue streak this week. I’ve written about this phenomenon before, when Martin starts speaking and cannot stop. It happens most in the morning. It used to be that Martin would repeat one statement, or one statement and several variations on that statement. As his language and other skills have improved, he’s broadened the repertoire. Now when he can’t stop talking, he cycles through many familiar topics.

During breakfast one morning this week, when Martin and I were alone in the kitchen, I tried to capture his monologue. (I call it a monologue because I seldom interjected. I struggle with deciding to what I should respond, especially when Martin wants attention more than an answer.) Through a combination of recording, scribbling, and recalling after-the-fact, I was able to transcribe the following. This is not verbatim, I’m sure, but it’s close:

When I grow up I am going to live by myself. I don’t want to have any roommates. I am going to be a man who has horns. I am going to have long hair. Mommy, when I grow up I am going to eat peanut butter Lära bars. Do they still play concerts in Central Park? Can we go there? I want to go there. I’m not going to school today. Is it your birthday? Mommy, whose birthday is it? Your brother Rudy and your niece Mandy have the same birthday. How old did Uncle Rudy turn on his birthday? Mommy, Uncle Rudy turned 47 and my cousin Mandy turned six. Mommy, how old are you? You are 42 years old. Do all kids have middle names? Do you have to practice to be a crucifer? I’m going to be a crucifer when I’m in middle school. I’m never going to be a crucifer. I’m never going to school again. You should move out. Go! I’m going to live alone. I want you to be my mommy forever. Is Daddy going to keep going to work? When you were with Miss Cara and Miss Eileen and Miss Tomomi during my play date, what did you do? I want your family to have another baby. Are many of my friends only children? Are all of them? In the eighth picture about the fireplace, are you holding me when I’m a baby? When you were a child, was it allowed for children to ride in the passenger seat? You married your husband in 2005.

Martin said all this, almost without pause, as he was sitting at the kitchen table drinking (or, as it were, not drinking) his bone broth. I’m never quite sure what sets Martin to nonstop talking, or whether a monologue like this is oral stimming, perseveration, attention-seeking behavior, anxiety, or some combination thereof. I’m frustrated when this happens, to be sure. I survive by focusing on Martin’s language skills. Do you remember when I was overjoyed that he managed to say, “I want you to do that again”? Compare that with the perfect sentences structures Martin rattled off this week. Those sentences were perseveration, and he could not slow down, but at least he had the words.

At least he had the words.

Hard Truths

Where have I been, these two months?

Let’s talk hard truths.

I’ve been dealing with Martin, who’s been nowhere near where I’ve wanted him.

Over this summer, something went awry, and his progress hit a plateau. I did not see significant improvement.

Honestly, I don’t really recall seeing any improvement. We had some firsts, like supermarket walking and approaching a stranger. At the end of July, a friend sent me an email stating that her husband, upon interacting with Martin for the first time in several months, “thought he seemed great—real improvement since last time!” But the jagged ascent to which I’ve become accustomed—progress, little setback, progress, little setback—evaporated. At times the summer felt more like uneven descent: no progress, little setback, no progress, little setback.

Finding My Kid is “a parent’s real-time blog of autism recovery.” It’s hard to post reports when no recovery is evident. It really is. It’s even harder when the author descends into hopelessness, into questioning whether she’s abandoned her career, her church work and activism, and large chunks of her social life in pursuit of a goal that never will be reached.

Then, two weeks ago, Martin tanked. I mean, tanked. One day I felt like, though progress had leveled off, at least I had a child without perceptible autism, and the next day I had a child with myriad classic signs of the disorder. In our apartment Martin ran compulsively to and fro, chanting “d-d-d-d-d-dah, d-d-d-d-d-dah.” He lost eye contact and name responsiveness. He threw tantrums when not allowed to watch one video repeatedly. Echolalia resurfaced. It was as if a year of progress disappeared overnight.

I consulted with his doctors and therapists. The prognosis was unanimous: stress. Adrenal stress, systemic stress from doing too much. Martin’s delicate system cannot keep up with the amount of detoxification we’re imposing.

We pulled back immediately. I took him off almost every agent meant for detoxification, whether heavy metals, parasites, viruses, or otherwise, and I kept him on only supplements and agents meant to support his adrenals.

With those changes, Martin shows signs of improving again. The repetitive behaviors, though still present, are diminishing. He’s making eye contact, albeit unsustained. Adrian and I are subjected to near-constant whining (hey, Martin is a four-year-old, after all) but fewer tantrums. I’m not going to say Martin’s recovery is back on track. I’m not even going to say we are where we were a month ago, when I already was unhappy with his progress.

I will say that, I hope, the ship is turning again.

So why recommence blogging now?

Because I have no excuse not to. Finding My Kid comes with an honesty pledge. Posting reports only when recovery is proceeding apace—well, that’s just not honest.

See you soon.

[Addendum: If you’re taking the time to read Finding My Kid, you probably already saw the piece in this morning’s New York Times about the the links between autism and immune disorders. I’m always happy when the mainstream press edges toward acknowledging that autism is medical and should be treated as such.]