A lot of people don’t see past Liam’s tow-headed exterior. He throws a tantrum in a store or chatters on endlessly about cars. If it comes up and we mention his ASD diagnosis, they say, “But he’s so outgoing,” or, “He doesn’t act autistic.” Or they just stare when he’s screaming and crying and drooling, raving about some perceived injustice as we drag outside to the car.
I know what they’re thinking, because I used to think the same thing when I saw parents who couldn’t control their kids. Bad parent.
Autism is a spectrum, and it’s hard to explain to the layperson. The truth is, our son does a good job of keeping it together, most of the time. He observes the people around him and does what he can to emulate that behavior.
In a way, it’s what we all do. Socialization. We glance around, we get in line, we keep it together. For most of us, it becomes second nature. For some, it’s a never-ending struggle.
When Liam is comfortable with you, he lets that façade down. He orders you around like a dictator. He demands, he expresses any and all inner thought, and when things don’t go according to his precise and specific plan, he expresses his dissatisfaction and frustration without any filters. He explodes.
If you’re a parent, you’ve probably heard of “The Terrible Twos,” a child developmental milestone that generally comes before a whole host of cognitive advancements like object permanence, magical thinking, and empathy. In this last gasp of early childhood, kids tend to rely on aggression and temper tantrums to solve problems, most likely because they’re still learning how to communicate verbally. Then they get better at talking, and they grow out of it.
Socially and emotionally, Liam is stuck in this stage. Over and over again, we’ve worked with him and with trained professionals to understand consequence, communication, and patience. We’ve tried reward systems, charts, punishment, extinction therapy… and nothing has worked consistently.
Elodie, our daughter, turned two in May. The other day, she got frustrated with her brother—it happens a lot—and she lashed out, hitting him in the face. We told her she needed a timeout for her behavior. She looked up at us, lip extended outward in her painfully adorable pout, and shuffled off to her bedroom.
Let me reiterate: she’s two years old. Our toddler is already understanding the consequence of acting out, of pushing against the social cues that we’ve established in our household. If we ask a favor, she’s happy to oblige. She apologizes, she’s polite when asking for things, she self-soothes. She’s not constantly seeking approval, attention, or servitude. When she misbehaves, she knows that there are consequences.
Raising Liam, we always thought: this is just how it is. Kids are demanding, so this is normal. Kids are an energy sink, so this is normal. Kids tantrum, so this is normal. But our daughter is normal, neurotypical. It was through Elodie that we truly began to understand how different our own son was.
For a long time, we wondered whether the one method we’d avoided—corporal punishment—might prove effective for Liam. But so much research says otherwise. And then, finally, after his official diagnosis of Asperger syndrome (or the more-nebulous high-functioning autism spectrum disorder, as it’s now referred to), we started reading up about why he might be having these episodes. And a lot of the research seems to indicate that kids with autism experience inordinate amounts of unnecessary anxiety and fear and they don’t learn to let it go like neurotypical children.
So, if our kid is afraid all of the time, especially when he’s throwing a tantrum, does it really make sense to spank him? What’s that going to teach him? It’s going to associate even more fear—fear that is totally and completely realized, because of course he’ll be afraid of someone threatening physical harm—with his irrational, unnecessary fear. I want Liam to trust us, to rely on us, and corporal punishment—punishment of any kind, really—can erode that trust with a kid with autism.
Now think about how most schools handle misbehavior. They punish. Sure, they don’t use corporal punishment anymore, but as Liam’s teacher told us, it’s all based around consequence. And right now, at this stage in his development, Liam doesn’t get consequence.
But that’s what he receives in school, a place that already triggers his fear response. He’s surrounded by noise, by dozens of other personalities, and expected to perform. To solve problems, to write coherently (he has abysmal handwriting), to control his impulses.
Every year in public school, it was the same heartbreaking routine. For the first few months, he’d seem fine. He’d make friends, perform adequately, and we’d start to hope that maybe this was the year that things would even out.
Then around December, we’d start getting the phone calls at work. The report cards arrived, with comments about his behavior. We’d meet teachers for conferences and discuss ways to help Liam get through the day, to help “manage” him. But it was all the same. Punishment and consequence. Take away his recess. Separate him from the rest of the class for quiet time. Send him to another teacher. Take away his privileges at home. And it never worked. For three years in a row, Liam skidded into summer break in a black cloud of principals’ office visits and reduced screen time, and he never once learned his lesson.
Eventually, he’ll have to. The world is full of consequence. Everyone lives with consequence. And with the help of our families and friends, Liam can attend a school where they can teach him those skills, slowly, with patience and understanding.