Monday, April 16, 2007

Deconstructing expectations...

Spring break is over & Brendan's back to school today. We are in the midst of the promised snowstorm, so the drive to school was particularly unpleasant (it's hard enough to get back into the routine, but then to have the traffic & road conditions yucchy & unpredictable was no fun...). Brendan was mad at the weather, I suspect because he'd been trying to concentrate on the school activities that he enjoys & the snow didn't bode well for going outside today. :( He did hold himself together really well though, in the face of the end of vacation. He told me this morning that school itself isn't so bad, it's just all the tic triggers that make it horrible sometimes. I agreed wholeheartedly, & it made me realise how (mostly) tic-free our week at home had been. This is, of course, very much thought about & planned- the tic-free atmosphere was not an accident. It's not restful or vacation for anyone if one of us is uncomfortable, & we've evolved a way of being that minimises tics. In a way, one of the roles of school for Brendan is (somewhat) controlled exposure to tic triggers. He's not going to learn to deal with the OCD if it isn't challenged... & by contrast, home has become as much of a haven as we can make it. It's not perfect... he had a cow yesterday morning when he saw the cover of a catalogue (the King Arthur Flour catalogue, of all things...) which featured 2 summer-dressed women at a wedding shower. He was upset that they "hardly had any clothes on"- meaning that they were wearing spaghetti-strap & tank tops/dresses. We tried to tell him that they were dressed quite normally for summer, but he wasn't buying it. I realised that he was probably comparing their attire to what he sees me wear & so I told him that I dress differently than most women in the summer, that I'm the "weird" one in this situation, not them. Sigh. I was not about to explain to him that I don't wear skimpy clothing for 2 main reasons: I'm not comfortable revealing my upper arms & legs because I don't think they're attractive & feel embarassed, &, intertwined with these feelings, are feelings about my body that are left over from my incest recovery work. I find it very emotionally painful to wear clothing that uncovers too much of my body, so I've adopted a summer "look" that includes long skirts & elbow-length sleeves... Brendan wasn't buying the whole idea that my way of dressing is the outlier, either, & I suspect that another element was his preadolescent new awareness of the differences between men & women. In either case, we solved the whole thing by turning the catalogue cover-down & talking about the yummy dessert depicted on the back. Any port in a storm. :)

That conversation with Brendan was one of a series of experiences recently that have led me to think intensely about how he & I interact, what expectations I have for him, & why I have them. In so many ways Brendan & I have an empathy that allows for fluent communication. As I learn about autism, I'm coming more & more to realise that this empathy comes from our similarities. I am sure that I'm on the spectrum, too, but before I had Brendan I didn't recognise my spectrum qualities for what they are. I am becoming aware that some of my concerns about him, such as the tone of voice issue I spoke of in my previous entry, come from my own personal experiences & worries. As he's gotten older, I notice more & more bumpy, uncomfortable moments between us, though. I know it's to be expected- his psychologist has been reminding us lately that the job of adolescence is for him to separate himself from us & become an individual. I'm left wondering how to keep the communication lines open through this time. With Brendan, good communication is essential. He needs more help from us than most kids his age, so how do we provide adequate support & still allow him to be/become a capable, independant person?

Yesterday at church I had an experience that made me think very hard about my behavioural expectaions for myself & how they affect my expectations for Brendan. I was in a small group of people chatting when someone whom I had never really spoken to before, but knew by face & name joined the group... or, at least, I thought I knew who they were. There was something different about how they looked that put me, mentally, off balance for a bit. For a while, I wasn't really sure I was talking to who I thought I was (talking to). It was really disorienting, & luckily I was with a group & could just back off & listen to the others converse. After a little while I realised that this person was who I'd thought they were & things fell back into place. I was left feeling slightly unsettled for quite a While, though. I think it was partly because I realised that this happens with some frequency, & also because my only strategy for coping was to act "as if" I knew them... It made me think about how often Brendan will ask someone he's already met right to their face, who they are, & because he's a kid & most folks in our lives know he's autistic, they smile & reintroduce themselves. I think I rather envy him.

I told Charlie about this experience last night, after Brendan had gone to bed. I asked him what had been different about this person that made me not recognise them (he said it was probably something to do with their hair). The morning's experience came back to me when we chatted about friends we'd seen earlier in the day, & how he'd noticed that they'd put on some weight over the winter, & I realised that I hadn't noticed that about them until they themselves had mentioned it, & then their changed appearance just kind of blossomed into my mind. After Charlie went to bed I got to thinking about how I've learned to socialise in such a way that, despite my spectrum qualities, I'm considered to be a socially successful person. By that I mean that I have a reputation for being good at leading groups of people, for helping groups of people successfully problem-solve, for choosing to be in the middle of things, rather than hanging out on the fringes. I like to interact with groups of people & put myself into situation where I have to interact... That isn't to say that I don't have some significant issues with social anxiety. I do not like new groups, meeting new people, going to new places. I am most confortable in my niches- church & school- & do not function well outside of them. So I guess I'm contextually successful. How did I learn what I have learned, about reading body language, making eye-contact, knowing the appropriate sounds to make? How have I learned to "pass"?

The answer is, survival, or perhaps more accurately, Survival. My father was mentally ill (bipolar) & sexually abused me starting at an early age. I learned to read his body language, to anticipate his moods practically by esp, because it was a matter of survival. Hyper-vigilance was a way of life & has carried-over into adulthood. Before Brendan was born & I worked in a laboratory my desk faced a wall, but I knew who was entering my lab without turning around because I knew what everyone's footsteps sounded like. My hyper-sensitivity to Charlie's &, particularly, Brendan's moods has been a very helpful thing. It can make our family life run much more smoothly. The thing is, I can't help but wonder if I'm not, deep down, expecting Brendan to become as adept at this very difficult set of skills just because I found it a matter of survival to be so. This idea has really pulled me up short, so to speak.

In an early post I talk a bit about my Survivor recovery & how it has helped Charlie & I to cope with raising a child with autism. Although I was "officially" done with recovery when Brendan was born, I realised very early on that raising a child was bringing up a lot of un-dealt-with issues for my, concerning my own early childhood. I found a new therapist when Brendan was still quite young & still see her every 2 weeks, to fine-tune myself so that I'm better able to cope with what life throws at me. Even though I've been at this parenthood thing for just over 11 years, I still can't get over how intertwined my own childhood experiences are with my present parenting. I realise that I have high behavioural expecations- I don't tolerate disrespectful behaviour at all- partly because that's what allowed me to survive childhood, & parly because I think it's good form to be respectful. I really don't like it when Brendan responds in a snarly or surly manner to us (can you see why I'm worried about getting through his adolescence intact?). I pass my high expectations on to Brendan by commenting, probably far too often, on his behaviours, which he interprets as incompetence on his part. Add to this mix my own feelings/perspctives/strategies for dealing with autism spectrum issues & things get even more confusing. I want him to function well socially, I want him to not only decode what's going on with others but to respond appropriately. I want other people to respond positively to him, to like him. I'm beginning to understand that my expectations for Brendan are "tainted" by my experiences of abuse & my own difficulties with socialisation. One of the things I've felt good about in raising a child of my own is that he doesn't have to experience the abusive childhood that I did... And although I'm not worried abaout becoming abusive in the way my father was, I'm coming to understand that I have to back off in my expectations for him if I'm going to maintain a positive relationship with him. I need to figure out how much of my expectations are "my stuff". I need to trust that he will learn what he needs without having to become hypervigilant, like me.

The good part of this whole situation is that Charlie is, & has always been, our ever-present middle-ground reference point. Charlie has learned to live positively with spectrumy, hypervigilant me, & has a very functional, loving relationship to us, his wife & child. One thing I realised in my ruminations yesterday is that Charlie has been giving me a lot of positive feedback lately about specific interactions between me & Brendan. He's been subtly sending me good messages about the times he thinks I've done well helping Brendan cope with life. This is a strategy we've consciously adopted for use with Brendan- tell him what's good at least as often (more, if possible) as we criticise- & it's very successful because not only does Brendan get info about how he's been successful, but it puts a positive spin on life. When I realised that Charlie's been doing this for me it made me very grateful (kind of teary, actually). It affirms me as a capable human being & parent. It helps me to understand that, if I can successfully separate Brendan from me in my head & heart, then I can still be a loving mom, have a close relationship with him, & still allow him to find his own ways to succeed in life.

I'm making a mental list of these things, of course, so that I can work on them with my own therapist, & also get suggestions from Brendan's psychologist when Charlie & I visit him next. All of these thoughts & issues have made me realise that things are always beginning, in relationships, in life. No matter how long I'm a mother I will still always be beginning some aspect or another of my relationship with my kid. It never ends.

Brendan did a stellar job of transitioning himself back to school after the break, all things considered. He reached melting-point a couple times last evening, then chose to do something that distracted him or discharged the feelings in other ways (watch a movie, play a game). Observing & appreciating his efforts really reinforces for me how capable he is becoming. Reminds me that I really don't need to worry so much about him.

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