The Thing I Thought I’d Never Do
- March 07, 2016
- Jessie Tucker Mitchell
As the mother of a six year old with autism, I have learned many different strategies to prevent behavior problems from occurring. When Fletcher was a nonverbal two year old, I learned how to use the Picture Exchange Communication System so he could touch pictures to convey his needs; almost overnight, his frustration level decreased by half. When Fletcher was three and our family moved to a new house, I used a social story to make the transition predictable and enjoyable; he loved studying the photos of his new backyard and bedroom during the weeks before our move. Now that he is in first grade, Fletcher’s reading skills have improved by leaps and bounds because every morning, I write a daily schedule on his dry-erase board, starting with “Eat breakfast” and ending with “Go to bed,” and he has taught himself to read every word, no pictures necessary. The dry-erase board is our best friend.
However, last fall, my husband and I noticed a change in Fletcher’s behavior that we could not prevent, despite trying every suggestion from every expert possible. Our son grew moody and short-tempered. He would be playing contentedly one moment and throwing a tantrum the next – and I don’t mean lying on the floor kicking and screaming half-heartedly like Opie’s fake tantrum on The Andy Griffith Show. Fletcher’s tantrums were fierce and wild, and though he never hurt anyone, he could ram into the couch or fling himself to the kitchen floor so hard that he almost hurt himself. Some of his outbursts would stretch on for hours, and any approach we took – hugging, comforting, distracting, bribing – never helped. The rest of the family, including my two older children, was constantly on edge. We struggled to hold our tempers and snapped at each other over the smallest issues. My daughter said she dreaded coming home. My husband confided that he felt the same. I knew we could not continue living this way.
Before I go on, let me clarify: Yes, part of the problem was that Fletcher was disruptive and that the whole family was impacted by his behavior; but perhaps the worst problem was that Fletcher himself was suffering. His anxiety consumed him. He never smiled, never acted like a carefree little boy. He was tortured by his own mind. And I, someone who at one time had known a variety of techniques that never failed to help him, was left feeling helpless and lost. I wanted my family to be happy. I wanted Fletcher to feel at peace.
After a long talk with my husband and a psychiatrist, I made the enormous decision to have Fletcher start taking a mood stabilizing medication. It was not a decision I made lightly. I agonized for weeks, weighing the risks and benefits, but I knew I had to do something, and it was going to take a giant leap of faith to try something I had always vowed not to do. I remember sharing this decision with a friend who seemed absolutely horrified that I would willingly give drugs to my son. “Can’t you change his diet instead?” she asked. I pointed out that he was already gluten- and soy-free, and that we avoided additives and food dyes whenever possible. “Can’t you just try new discipline techniques?” she asked. “What about putting him in time-out?” I held back hysterical laughter. If we tried to sit Fletcher in time-out, he probably would knock a hole through the wall. After proposing a couple other alternatives, she walked away with a look of disgust, but I refused to let it bother me. I knew my son better than anyone, and I knew the next step we needed to take.
Anyone who has taken mood stabilizing medication, or knows someone who does, knows that it takes time to see changes, and they are not always obvious at first. And with Fletcher, the changes were indeed gradual: one less argument during breakfast, one fewer tantrum at Harris Teeter. One afternoon while I was unloading the dishwasher, I heard a sound I literally had not heard in months. I tiptoed to the living room and peeked through the doorway, and found Fletcher lying on the carpet, looking at a book and giggling. He actually had the giggles. My chest felt so light and free at that moment, I almost cried. Instead, I leaned back against the wall and whispered a prayer: “Thank you, thank you, thank you.” Over and over again; it was all I needed to say.
The tantrums grew further and further apart. Fletcher started interacting more with his siblings: He built Lego structures with Truman, played chase with Elsa, rolled around on the carpet with baby Archer. He started talking in complete sentences and using his words, rather than his actions, to share his feelings. One of his favorite phrases is, “I feel so frustrated,” and every time I hear it, I can’t help but turn my head away and smile because he sounds like such a little man. Our home is still loud, but now it’s loud with the sounds of four children laughing and interacting like – well, like four children should.
Fletcher’s teacher and therapists are amazed by the changes they see at school. He seeks out his peers on the playground. He actually makes jokes. When I pick him up in the afternoons, he runs over to me and says, “I missed you. I’m happy to see you.” Those words hit me the hardest, and I pull him close, so thankful that my husband and I took the chance and decided to medicate our son.
I know medication is not for everyone, but for us, it was a miracle. It gave us back our family; and for Fletcher, it gave him back his life. It gave him his childhood. And for that, I am eternally grateful.