Monday, October 22, 2012

Dear Abby: I'm Afraid My Child Will Kill Me

IMPORTANT NOTE: I do not believe autism (nor any neurological condition) correlates with violence or crime of any sort. Rachel Cohen-Rottenberg eloquently covered this implausibility back in July: Despicable: Joe Scarborough's Words on Autism and Mass Murder. Here's your takeaway: "There has never been any evidence what-so-fucking-ever that autism is associated with criminal violence." 

The stories posted here are absolutely true, but I altered some potentially identifying details  - including my own - for obvious reasons. 

I know this kid with the sweetest smile. He's gentle, friendly and mostly a "mama's boy."

Like many of us, he really hates being left out. Unfortunately, since he has a number of neurological challenges, this happens to him more frequently and overtly than other kids his age (let's say 9). So when he wants to play with a peer, but the peer avoids or ignores him...well, this little angel lashes out. Just last week, a play date ended abruptly when his peer had to proceed to the ER to have a telling, Frankenstein-ian gash stitched up. (This from a kid who can't even throw a ball to First.)

The mortified mom of the perpetrator - really, a lovely woman - relayed this story to me in tears, horrified and embarrassed. Remarkably, the victim's parent, a mutual friend, could not be more gracious and understanding, but the mom certainly isn't holding her breath for an invitation to the family's annual Halloween party. 

Since this wasn't the first incident, we've had this talk before. She's conscientious and smart, and already has been down the path of behavioral interventions and medications targeting mood, ADHD and impulsiveness. So the conversation moved to the next level.

Was he sorry?
"Well, he was crying, and said: 'I'm sorry, Mommy.'"
So you think that he regrets hurting his friend?
"I made him apologize, and write a card to the kid. I know he's sorry he broke a rule and is being punished. But, honestly, I'm really not sure if he actually feels bad about hurting the kid."

I started to compare this to my own son's aggressive behaviors. Similarly, they emerge only when he is "provoked" - like when he is over- or under-stimulated to begin with, and then misunderstood or denied something he really wants.

This other child (sort of) premeditated his move - targeting his prey. In contrast, my son lashes out at whomever or whatever is in reach. So while he might hit me or pull my hair, he also might instead overturn a table full of paint or even bite his own arm. Once the incident passes, he seems genuinely upset and confused about what happened.

Now another child I know appears to deliberately choose to lash out sometimes, because, theoretically, she "enjoys" the attention. (Probably that's better described as the sequence of events she initiated. Behavioral consultants have taught me that the best response is to not reward a child with any reaction, but YOU try that when a child has just tackled you with an uppercut.)

Still, I believe both of these children understand the human consequence of their actions. Sure, impulse control, sensory needs and all sort of other factors are in play here, but they are aware and concerned - at least after the fact - that someone has been hurt.

However, when we speculate if my friend's kid - the gasher - feels similar regret...I'm not so sure. Though I wonder, does it even matter if they regret the action or not if they can't control it in the heat of the moment?

Either way, we have some semi-violent kids on hand, and the honest truth is that it scares the hell out of us. I don't see them carrying out elaborate, premeditated murder plots, but - as they grow older and stronger - are they capable of losing control and knocking us in the head with a candlestick from Colonel Mustard's library? I don't doubt it for a second.

I've heard some shocking, first-hand stories of older kids - when in full meltdown mode - destroying TVs, breaking windows, and throwing rocks at people. The behaviors, while horrifying, always seem to have an "understandable" explanation and trigger (relevant to that child's condition and situation).

Consider TV's brilliant, serial killer character, Dexter, who claims to have a moral code guiding his murderous behaviors. Our children are different. Their behaviors are more rooted in "fight or flight" impulses; somehow, much less controlled. Still, my experience is with kids under 10. What happens when they turn into teenagers?

The truth is, I'm terrified. These children have loving families, wonderful teachers and therapists, and well-monitored medications and interventions. Like other children, they snuggle with us at night and bombard us with butterfly kisses.

Still, during that millisecond when my son's pupils narrow, and he giggles or bellows maniacally, morphing into a violent, little stranger, I feel helpless sorrow; perhaps some shame; but most shocking of all, the unsettling realization that my own child could kill me one day.

I've already forgiven him.