Finding Wonderful New Ways to Connect with Autism
Beneath my feet, my eight-year-old son darts back and forth. His ears are beet red and his cheeks are flushed, but still he runs. I try to get him to slow down but he won’t—he can’t. His church clothes are still lying on the bed where I placed them a half hour ago when I asked him to change. As I try to tackle him to get his clothes on, he fights me tooth and nail. As he gasps for breath, I try to calm him by using the breathing techniques his behavioral therapist showed me. I can hear his heart pounding and I can feel his little body shaking. It’s a terrifying feeling as I hold him close, praying that he calms down
Diagnosed with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), mood disorder, and high-functioning autism, my son has been getting behavioral therapy for the past four and a half years. He was recently finally released as the mobile therapist who helped him felt that he was on the right track. She felt that I had everything under control, and in many ways, I do. I am firm and consistent with punishment, but it doesn’t always work.
During the past four years, I have watched my son struggle. I have faced his meltdowns, faced physical abuse, and spent the summer locking myself in the bathroom where I proceeded to have my own meltdowns. But, in the course of those years, I have watched him greatly improve. I have watched him go from being a child who didn’t know how to socialize or interact to becoming a social butterfly. Though he has struggled with empathy, he now understands it. Sure, there are still issues here and there. There are still the angry meltdowns at times, and punishment doesn’t always work, but we work through it the best we can. There is still the invasion of personal space, and as much as we have worked on it, he still has trouble understanding facial expressions at times. Though we have come a long way with behavioral therapy, there is still the issue with medication.
For the past four years, my son has visited a child psychiatrist. I have watched the doctors put him on six different medications during this time, hoping it would help him—from Focalin to Adderall to Abilify. The worst of three, Abilify, led to daily meltdowns that left me being punched in the gut, kicked in the shins, and bitten on the arms. I dealt with a child who would leave me in the store and lead me on a chase that left me in tears. Timeouts and punishment didn’t work. I was dealing with a green-eyed monster, and it was all thanks to a medication that was supposed to help him and not make him worse. Desperate for help, I reached out to the doctor who placed him back on the Adderall, but still I face a hyper child. With the medications wearing off so quickly, I am left dealing with a child bouncing off the walls. So where do you turn when medications aren’t working? Do you watch their diet? Do you do turn to home remedies? These are the questions I continually asked myself until I found another method—art.
Having struggled with ADHD and high-functioning autism myself as a child, I found solace in art, which proved to be the exact therapy that I needed. Armed with canvas boards and paints, I sat my hyperactive son down and handed him a paintbrush. At first he studied it before dipping it into a dark blue color and stroking it across the canvas. When he giggled and aimed the brush at me threatening to flick paint, I immediately directed him back to the canvas and encouraged him to flick the paint there instead. Soon I saw an array of colors splattered across the canvas, and I was amazed. From that moment on my son became focused on art. He pleaded for sketchbooks and colored pencils—begged me for more canvas and paints. He had me watch as he used his fingers instead of the brushes, thus giving it a whole new look.
It’s been almost four months since we began art therapy and my son and I are still painting together. We are still creating works of art that are hung across the walls. Recently the local art association asked both of us to host our own art exhibit, and it is something that has motivated my son even more. Though there are still the occasional meltdowns when Mommy says, “No, you can’t have that toy,” there are days when I sit and watch him express himself through painting and, recently, sculpting. Art therapy has proven to the be the exact method that I needed to keep my son calm, and though we have those moments of outbursts and not listening, we also have those bonding moments of self-expression that have made our relationship stronger than it’s ever been.
Destiny Eve Pifer is a journalist who currently writes for her hometown newspaper The Punxsutawney Spirit. She has her own monthly column called Mapping My Destiny, in which she writes about her adventures as a mother. Her work has appeared in numerous magazines and anthologies.
This article was featured in Issue 65 – Back-To-School Transitions