Having a child with autism who can become aggressive can be utterly exhausting. James was always really well behaved for me. He rarely showed any negative behaviors when we were together (with the exception of when John was present and instigating). When James was not with me, however, he frequently became aggressive and even violent. Children and adults had gotten physically injured by him.
As I mentioned in previous posts, I entered James into many different therapies and interventions. One of these interventions was his counseling services. I took James once a week to see an incredible counselor. She was very invested in helping James to develop strategies. Together we worked on creating a list of ideas for how James could avoid becoming aggressive when I was not present. One of those ideas was that he be given availability to call me, so that I could help him to remain calm. Keep in mind that John had an open invitation to these sessions to include his input. He also had the counselor’s email address and phone number. I frequently encouraged him to try and attend James’ sessions, but he refused.
The next time James became upset, he asked his father if he could call me and was told no. Even though John knew that this was on his list of acceptable strategies, he refused to let James call. This, of course, resulted in James becoming aggressive and having a large, violent fit ( as I found out later that day).
I received a call from James’ teachers. He had a very difficult day and was unsafe to attend aftercare. I drove to the school immediately to pick him up from his special education classroom. They shared with me that he had been unsafe all day but they were unable to identify a trigger.
James then opened up, “It started this morning. I wanted to call you and Daddy wouldn’t let me.” I told James that he should be able to call either one of his parents if he needed them and that I would speak to his father that evening.
When John got home, I reminded him that James had made a list of strategies with his counselor that he felt would help him to calm down and that calling me was on the list he created. With John present, I wrote both of our phone numbers down for James. Together we practiced calling John’s phone and then we practiced calling mine. I reassured James that he will always be given access to both of his parents if he needs us.
John appeared to be calm and in agreement, so I left the house to buy some paper towels. Before I had even gotten to the store, my phone was ringing. When I answered I could hear James crying. He said, “Daddy won’t stop talking about things I don’t like!” I asked him to stop and he won’t!” When I asked him to tell me what he said, he wouldn’t because John was sitting next to him listening.
When I got home I heard James hissing. I opened his bedroom door to find him biting his father and his father saying, “No thank you James! Why are you doing this?! No biting!” I could tell they were both escalating, so I intervened. I asked James to tell me what was wrong but he just stared at John and John stared at him. I could tell he was afraid to tell me with John in the room, so I asked him to leave. He, of course, refused. I asked him again and again he refused. I waited him out for what felt like forever, and eventually he left.
Once he was gone James shared with me that his father told him he can’t call me whenever he wants. It’s his phone and he gets to decide who uses it. He doesn’t care what plan it is in and who told him he could use it. He gets final say.
My heart sunk. John was, once again, actively preventing James from being successful. If a short phone call will help James calm down so he doesn’t need to be restrained or doesn’t give his sister an open wound, what is the harm? We asked him what would help him when he’s upset… he told us… we promised him we could deliver on that request…. and now, instead of respecting his needs in an attempt to help him to maintain control over his emotions, there was just more mind games and manipulation.
After tucking James into bed I approached John and asked him if he had said this and he replied that he did. I reminded him that calling a trusted adult is a strategy that James has identified as something that will help him maintain his calm and that the school and his outside counselor agree that it is a good strategy that may help prevent James from becoming violent.
John remained rigid. “He has to learn to self soothe. It’s child psychology that if he calls you every time he gets upset he’ll never be able to do it on his own.” I knew this was not true. I was the one who attended every session with James and the child psychologist. John was the furthest thing from an expert on child psychology. But I knew there was no reasoning with John. I also knew that this was really about JOHN’S needs, and not James’ needs. John needed to remain in control and for some reason he felt allowing James to call me when we was in distress was giving up control.
I recommended that John call James’ counselor and get her take on it. He refused, saying “I’m not going to call her. It’s common sense. I don’t need to talk to her. ” I tried to reason with him, for James’ sake. I could tell that James was in distress and felt as if his access to his mom was being prevented. I told John that I was confused because he was claiming it was child psychology but he wasn’t willing to speak to the child psychologist. What harm would it do to discuss it with her and hear her advice?
He escalated. He started yelling that none of the people who are working with James have gotten him to self soothe yet, so something had to change and he was going to be the person to change it. I knew James could hear us. I could sense that John was close to loosing it. I had to walk away from the conversation. I was trying to help James by engaging in this conversation with John, but if James overheard what John was yelling… it would hurt him.
I decided to get some space to let things calm down and told John that I had to go into work to get a few things done. He became even more angry… more aggressive. “I can assume you’re going to do something legal?” This man was completely coming undone. Legal? What “legal” thing would I possibly be doing at 8:00 at night? I told him if he needed me to stay to care for the children then I would. If not, I was going to go do some work. Again, he started shouting, “But you’re going to file paperwork, right?! Is that where you’re going?” He started to walk towards me. I had to get out of the house before this went too far. I could feel it in my bones. I headed towards the door and heard, “What happened to being open and honest… huh?!?!?! This doesn’t need to be as hard as you’re making it!”
I stayed away from the house for a few hours. I snuck back in when I thought he might be sleeping, went up to the bedroom and locked the door. He was cracking. He was using the kids as fodder. This was no way to live.
John continued to deny James access to me for months. On rare occasions, he would let James call me when asked, but if James started to say anything about John’s role in his emotional distress, John would either tell him to stop or put his finger up in James’ face… as if threatening him not to say a word.
It caused James a great deal of stress and resulted in many violent outbursts between him and his father. But John got what he wanted. He was able to bully and control a 5 year old. The counselor tried talking to John multiple times…. as did I… but John would not budge. Family Relations even tried to reason with him…. but it was John. He found a new way to cause me distress… and it was by causing my child distress.