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Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Quiet Voice Victory!

It has taken us 10 years to figure out how to help Jackson manage his volume and tone of voice.  We were just joking the other day that an autism diagnosis is not an accurate representation of him (for many reasons I'll go into on a later date), so we made up a more humorous, but fitting term: LASS...Loud, Angry, Silly Syndrome. 

But in all seriousness, this spring, we have made a few breakthroughs in regards to helping him understand how and when to use a quiet and calm voice.  Sadly, it is a fairly simple formula that has proven extremely challenging, on our part, to implement. But, as they say, knowing is half the battle, so now that we know, we can continue the battle! The 3 key parts to this formula are:

1.  Creating an anxiety free environment
2.  Leveraging his newly developed interest in a social life
3.  Consistency!!!!!

Step 1 is by far the most important part of this grand plan, and the reason he was so unsuccessful in a public middle-school environment - which I now understand is one of the most stressful environments on the planet for all kids, not just for special needs ones.

Jackson has a tremendous amount of anxiety.  His adrenal glands do not work properly, so his "fight or flight" response is terribly out of whack.  His pupils dilate very quickly when any stressor is encountered and remain that way for a prolonged period of time, indicating a highly anxious biochemical state far past what we would consider appropriate.  Simply put, he freaks out early and often!

Creating an anxiety free environment is not as hard as you'd think.  We do not feel comfortable medicating Jackson, so anti-anxiety meds are out of the question.  So we do other things that seem to have a similar effect, such as:

*  daily morning yoga
*  daily morning devotions and prayer
*  high doses of B vitamins including lots of B-12
*  green tea
*  melatonin at nighttime
*  gluten and casein free diet
*  sugar free diet
*  toxic chemical free home
*  no yelling in our home
*  clear, written daily schedule
*  careful transition management

Some people might think it would just be easier to give him a Xanax and drop him back into stressful situations, but we are just not comfortable introducing a synthetic substance into his already neuro-chemically compromised brain.  Maybe someday, but not today. We also feel strongly that the above practices are going to help teach him, and Caroline, life-long stress management and not to rely on quick fixes.  Being able to manage his anxiety helps set the stage for us to tell him to "quiet down" without him lashing out at us verbally or physically.

Step 2 is the most recent puzzle piece to fall into place and has been the most eye-opening!  For more than a decade, Jackson has been totally uninterested in socializing with anyone outside our family.  He had only tolerated his peers and other adults, but in the last 12 months, he has blossomed into a social butterfly.  I noticed it last summer, and have spent the last year trying to figure out how to help him embrace this new side to his personality in an appropriate manner (i.e. no hugging everyone at Trader Joes, talking only to people who are not talking to others, etc...)

But in the last 6 weeks or so, I have discovered another benefit to this huge developmental milestone...leveraging his social life to get him to control himself.  At the end of the day, Jackson is a 13 year old boy.  He has finally realized that he likes other people and they are fun to hang out with...a lot more fun than school work or boring time at home. Using positive reinforcement or incentives had stopped working with him. Giving him access to the computer or iPad just wasn't cutting it anymore.  A giant light bulb went off in my head that what we have been using for his 10 yr old sister, would now work for him..."If you don't clean your room, Savannah can't come over."

Five minutes ago, I noticed Jackson's voice was getting really loud and angry sounding as he was watching a SpongeBob cartoon, so I went downstairs and told him in a calm voice, "You need to quiet down, or there will be no pool today."  And there has not a peep out of him since!  It has been such a big breakthrough because it is a developmentally appropriate consequence for a 13 yr old boy.  The addition of the social component has opened up so many new doors for him as well as for us as his parents.  Now we can leverage his interest in all kinds of social situations such as church, shopping, yoga class, adaptive PE, pool, basketball games, friend visits, swim meets, etc... Just like his sister, he can now find the ability to control himself if the possibility of losing social time is an option.

Step 3 is the most difficult component because it is 100% our responsibility, not Jackson's.  We need to be super consistent with the first 2 steps in order to pull this whole caper off! If I revert back to yelling because I am frustrated, he will get more anxious and his tone will get more angry and take twice as long to calm down.  If I fail to follow through on taking away a morning at Caroline's basketball game (even though every fiber in my body wants to go), I have to stay home with him.  Over the years, we have ebbed and flowed in our consistency with him because nothing seemed to really work, so we'd give up quickly on the newest technique or behavioral fad.  Now it seems obvious that the failure was ours, not Jackson's and that consistency is more important, more difficult and more humbling because it is our burden to bear, not his.

Real Life Update - Thursday, May 31st:


This morning at Target, Jackson had a colossal freak out over a bottle of water that we could not reach on the top shelf.  He threw himself on the floor (all 5'4" 100lbs of him) and began shouting and kicking the wall.

I took a deep breath, drawing on all of my patience and understanding of the need for consistency and held out my hand to him and said, "Can you stand up please?"  He took my hand and as he stood up, he spit in my face and put his hands around my neck.  I took another deep breath and gently moved his hands from my neck to around my waist and pulled him close saying, "You're Ok, Buddy."  He put his head on my shoulder and squeezed me pretty hard.  I whispered in his ear, "Do you want to go to gym class today with Mr. Ricardo?".  He whimpered, "Yes, please."  I asked, "Do you want to check out now?", and I got another "Yes, please."  So I handed him my debit card, which is a good concrete transition object that helps him know when shopping is done.  After a few moments to collect himself, we quietly and calmly proceeded to checkout and head back to the car without any issues. Once we got in the car, I turned to him and we talked about what had happened and why it was wrong.

I share this now because I think it is a good way to illustrate the points I made in the post earlier about the importance of all 3 steps.  Although everything in me wanted to yell at him to "get the hell up off the floor and stop acting like a baby", I knew that would generate 100 times more anxiety in him and the whole situation would blow up even further...and really, yelling something like that at a kid in public is more for the parent to let off steam or to try and look in control to the myriad of smug observers who've gathered to watch your parenting failures.  So I stayed calm and that peaceful spirit helped to defuse him as well.

I also did not give into my urge to threaten to take away all his activities for the rest of the day - "you get up now or there will be no computer, library, pool, etc"... I quickly picked the social engagement I knew meant to most to him and placed the choice in his hands.  He responded like I had hoped and chose gym class over anger.

Situations like this always remind me that Jackson's flash temper is a lot like an addiction.  You can see how the instant a high anxiety situation presents itself, he reaches right for the aggresssion fix much like someone would reach for a cigarette or a drink to calm their nerves.  It makes sense biochemically because Jackson has the same elevated levels of dopamine found in addicts.  My goal is to help him master the tools to resist this self-destructive habit as he grows into adulthood before my very eyes.

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