First, I see the change in mood. What was once a lighthearted and peaceful expression on Cody’s face is now a solemn one, the one we might get in the beginning of a brewing storm. Then the edge begins to appear on the nerves. Pacing up and down the hallway, stimming by twirling his drumstick, a pencil, pen or any other long, thin object he can find and the repetitive use of negative phrases are all Cody’s classic signs of building anxiety. Anxiety gives way to frustration which manifests itself in the form of stomping, escalating verbalization of negativity, and perhaps banging his drumsticks on the walls or furniture. And then the storm erupts. To witness my son pounding himself in the head and face with his fists, yelling and screaming as if he was in the most excruciating of all pain, and attempting to do things such as charge full force through a plate glass window has been both terrifying and heartbreaking in a deeply profound way.
Cody was always rambunctious as a child. Like many children with autism, he had a difficult time with knowing where his body was in space. His gross motor skills took much longer to develop then that of neurotypical children. His ankles were weak and so sprains and bruises were common. While his elementary teacher at school was attuned to how easily he would fall and how often a scrape or bruise would appear, it became a different situation when he entered middle school and his gross motor skills began to finally function properly more often. So because he was becoming more coordinated, falls were not always seen at school as they had been in the past. When he fell and bruised his arm at his grandmother’s house and went to school the next day, his middle school teacher thought it necessary to report it to Child Protective Services and we suddenly found ourselves under investigation for child abuse, even though there was a mountain of documentation of falls, accidents, bruises and other minor injuries that had happened at school. I was both mortified and petrified of what the outcome of the investigation would be.
We met with the investigator once and explained what had happened and also informed her of evidence of many of the same types of incidents that had been documented during his elementary years in school. The interview with her ended after an hour or so; the investigation was quickly dropped and we were absolved of any wrong doing. But while it was worrisome enough when bruises and scrapes were due to accidents, there were also those times when they were self-inflicted. For any mother who loves her child, this situation is a complete, living nightmare.
Cody’s years of puberty were the worst. While we had noticed in the past there were definite triggers to Cody’s tantrums and bouts of self-injury, we began to see them manifest without warning and with no apparent cause. One moment he would seem perfectly happy and the next he was screaming and banging his head on the floor. Fortunately, I have more upper body strength than many women. And I knew how to perform a bear hug restraint without causing injury to Cody or myself. Doing a restraint like this requires the knowledge to do so without impeding respiratory and circulatory function, so extreme caution must be exercised. We often sat on the floor, Cody on my lap with his back against my chest and my arms around his chest and arms, while I clasped my left wrist in a death grip with my right hand until his rage subsided.
We desperately sought any suggestions from Cody’s doctors. Their only answer was a higher dosage of medications or, “Let’s try a different one.” Many of the drugs we tried had little or no effect, and others exacerbated the problem tremendously. There were times when he would fly into a blind rage and not only attempt to hurt himself, but others as well. I was not excluded from being subjected to flying fists, biting and one attempt at choking.
Thank God these outbursts became less and less frequent, and much less volatile as Cody got older and now when we do see frustration building, it’s much easier to redirect his attention in a positive direction. Sometimes, we give him a warning of consequences such as having to stay home in lieu of an outing, or we may have him do something constructive such as practicing his typing on his computer. While he may be reluctant to comply with our directives at first, it is usually not very long before sound reasoning takes over, he employs better judgment, and the meltdown is averted.