Wednesday, January 11, 2006

Compensatory Behaviors and Financial Compensation

By the time I noticed it—1 or 2 o'clock this afternoon—it was too late to do anything about it. Much, much, much too late. Sweet M.'s purple school folder, with all of her homework and her communication notebook—was on the kitchen table.

There it was, on top of the stack of mail, in front of the dollhouse that is still decorated with a miniature Christmas tree complete with miniature ornaments. Therefore it was not in her backpack. Therefore she would arrive at school without the homework she had dutifully done. And, perhaps most menacing, her routine would be broken. What would happen?

Oh god, I thought, looking at the folder. I forgot the folder. Oh god.

In the home of neurotypical family, this kind of lapse would probably not occasion anguish. In the home of a kid at the edges of the spectrum, a forgotten folder, a changed lunchbox menu, a rescheduled appointment, can mean the difference between a successful, functional day, and a behavioral disaster.

My unfortunate lapse in forgetting her folder—that is, in forgetting to make sure it was in her backpack—was occasioned by my own preoccupation with a presentation that I was making today to a group of people who may decide to offer me a quite wonderful job that I would be frankly delighted to take on. It would be one of those projects that makes work and play totally indistinguishable, and I was completely preoccupied with my upcoming my presentation.

So I had forgotten her folder. I noticed that Sweet M.'s backpack was a little too light as we were heading toward our building's elevator this morning, but I didn't think to look inside to see what was missing. I didn't think to go back and do a second check—what my father used to call, in the days before political correctness and neurodiversity, an "idiot check." This language, I suppose, assumed that only idiots would be forgetful.

And so she headed off to school unprepared.

When I noticed the forgotten folder, I was hurriedly preparing myself for my meeting, so I couldn't take a minute to call her teacher. I simply couldn't engage in the compensatory behavior that has become second nature for most of us parenting in the spectrum. I could only think "Please please please I hope you didn't meltdown over this."

After I finished my meeting—which went very well for those of you who care about such matters—I noticed my cell phone was humming. It was the hum of the silent mode that you use in meetings. I checked who'd called, and it had been her school, calling at 8:02 a.m. Oh god, they called in the morning. I hope she hadn't had a meltdown over this.

I phoned the school from the taxi that I was taking to my next meeting, and got the classroom voicemail and left a message.

Oh god, I hope she didn't melt down. But there was no one available to reassure me, so I tucked the phone away.

Then the phone hummed again. It was Robin, M's teacher, returning my call. M, she reported, was very quiet when she discovered that the folder wasn't in the backpack. Then she'd said, "Call my mom." And then, when I hadn't gotten their call, she was fine with it. Completely fine. Oh well, no folder, no big deal.

Now that is progress.

I often wonder when I read the case studies and profiles of families like ours just how much this compensatory behavior of thinking for our children, heading their troubles off at the pass for them, contributes to our own financial problems, to our compensation problems: how difficult it can be to function effectively in the workplace and also think for your little autie, who is operating according to an entirely different set of rules. Today I simply couldn't compensate—I couldn't call the school the minute I saw the forgotten folder. And it turned out fine. I am so very proud of Sweet M. And so very relieved for all of us.


Octobermom said...

Congratulations to you and your Sweet M for diverting disaster!

Sometimes I sit at work and feel utterly and completely unable to ANYTHING right. If 95% of my attention is given to my little autie and another 95% is given to my very stressful job so that I can pay for all the expensive things that said autie needs and I only have 100% to go around - how can I make it all work?!

I hope you knocked their socks off with your presentation.

Christine said...

After we received a diagnosis for Oliver I realized the great lengths that I would go to in order to structure his environment to avoid tantrums. What a lot stress and energy that takes! I am still mindful of environmental triggers but I tend to focus a lot more now on how to help him cope rather than avoiding situations altogether.

I'm glad to hear that Sweet M happily surprised you!

Anonymous said...

I very much agree that "compensatory behavior of thinking for our children" can cause many problems, not just in taking a parent's time and concentration away from work, but also in depriving the child of the opportunity to learn how to deal with his/her own difficulties.

I believe this is generally true for children of all neurological types. When a parent does too much for a child, although with the best of intentions, the unfortunate result is that the child doesn't get the life experience necessary to develop workable problem-solving strategies. Kids need to be allowed to experience the natural consequences of their actions in order to understand those consequences.

I have two kids: a boy (aspie) who had trouble with time management and homework when he was younger, and a daughter who is not autistic but is very easily distracted. I made it clear to both kids that it was their job (not mine!) to remember to do their homework in a timely fashion and to make sure it was in their bookbags. I gave them assignment planners, sticky notes, etc., so that they could learn how to remind themselves of tasks to be done.

Yes, there was some amount of anguish (on the kids' part, that is) when they got bad grades as a result of homework disorganization and ended up being grounded from video games (most effective punishment for the boy) or from playing outside with friends (most effective punishment for the girl), but eventually they both got the message and learned how to take responsibility for managing their own time properly.

As I see it, getting work done on time (which includes remembering to turn in assignments) is the most important lesson that children learn in school. Although our modern economy has a great variety of niches for people with different abilities, interests, and knowledge, the ability to complete work promptly is essential for success in all careers -- there's just no getting around it.

Kudos to M. for understanding that a forgotten folder wasn't a disaster even if you didn't come rushing to school with it! And I hope you get the job, too!

MothersVox said...

Sal, Christine, Bonnie, Thanks for your very very thoughtful responses. I'm wondering if I asked people to post on their blogs about how their ASD kids have impacted their professional lives if they would answer that . . . I am so interested to know . . . yet I also know that speaking of money and professional success in our culture is even more taboo than speaking about sex!

I'm wondering if I "tagged" people on this point, or made a spot on my blog to talk about this, if others would talk about it. What do you think?

Sal, how *do* you do what you need to do at work? And you have two kids!

Christine, how did you manage the walking on eggs stage that is the tantrum avoidance that we do with our ASD kids? It *is* so stressful.

And Bonnie, how do you know when your child is ready to go to the next stage? . . . to be responsible for their homework, for example?

Clearly we are more than a little behind in recognizing Sweet M's leaps in capacity, as she has startled us with her flexibility and social prowess in the last month!

Anonymous said...

Congrats to Sweet M on developing more flexibility. I hope her teachers or other kids never put a major guilt trip on her for forgetting anything. Schools can be pressure cookers.

My dad called the strings that connected our gloves or mittens (and ran through the sleeves of our coats) "idiot strings" or something with "idiot" in the name.

I never thought that was a big deal. One time I called them idiot strings when talking about the ones on my own kids' gloves and the person I said it to reacted like I was horrible. Well, that's the difference in eons, I guess. I was born in 1959. My kids were born in the 1980's.

Thanks for the blog entry on "indigo children", too.

Anonymous said...

I would be interested to read about how other parents juggle kids and careers, too. It is a very stressful experience for many people and certainly shouldn't be treated as a taboo subject.

I had an easier time of it than most. I had planned on being a stay-at-home mom in the early years, and after my kids started school, I was able to find a professional job that allowed me to work from home. (Because the company was hiring large numbers of people for a new project and didn't have enough office space, they decided to let the new employees be telecommuters so that they wouldn't have to rent another building.)

I'm not as well paid as I could be, but the work is a good match for my skills and temperament, and I have no regrets. (I am an aspie myself and probably don't have enough energy and stress tolerance for a high-powered career anyway.)

As for tantrums, my son has a mild temper, but my daughter had some awful tantrums when she was younger. I didn't go out of my way to avoid potential problems, but whenever she lost her temper, I told her that she couldn't have whatever set off the tantrum for a very long time. For example, once when I took my kids to play miniature golf, my daughter got upset that she lost the game and started hitting her brother with her golf club. I told her that she couldn't play miniature golf again until the next summer.

Knowing when a child is ready to be more responsible, with homework and other things, certainly isn't easy! We get into the habit of doing so many things for our children that we don't even think about. I remember when my son was 8 years old, my husband told him to hang up his coat, which he had left on the floor. He answered, "I don't know how." And my husband just looked at me and asked how he got to be 8 years old without ever putting away his own coat. Of course, I had no good answer to that; I had just been hanging it up myself without giving it any thought at all!

After that, I made more of an effort to show my kids how to do everyday things for themselves. I taught my son how to do his own laundry when he was 9, and he did just fine with it. Homework was still a struggle for a few years after that, mainly because of problems with distraction and difficulty switching attention from one task to another. I had a lot of conversations with both kids about what they thought they could do to work more productively. It does take time to develop enough self-discipline!