As I raised the blinds in my son’s bedroom the other morning, I noticed his arm stretch out from beneath the blanket. His sleepy eyes looked at me – rather, at my clothes – and one periscope-like finger pointed in my direction. I would have thought the finger-pointing meant close the blinds, Mom, I’m still asleep, except I knew exactly what the index finger indicated.
I helped him gather what he needed to start his day. The finger suddenly found my shirt and pointed vigorously at it. “This is what I’m wearing, Zach.” How was I to know that the joggers/tank top/zip jacket combo was not going to meet his approval? It was going to be a long day.
It’s happened before, but typically the dissatisfaction was directed toward Dad and his work attire. (Wearing a suit after work went against Zach’s dress code.) This time, I was the recipient of wardrobe rejection. If it begins in the morning, it lasts all day. The objection and accompanying finger lashing can continue until the offensive clothing is changed or till one goes to bed. The lashing rivals Harrison Ford’s “Finger of Doom” but it is far more relentless.
When this behavior first popped up years ago, it seemed as if the answer laid in simply returning to the closet to get something else to wear. But pretty quickly, we figured out that Zach’s sensibilities didn’t allow for a simple t-shirt switcheroo. His fingers would still point no matter what you chose, and there was no way to satisfy the critic.
Through the years, I realized it wasn’t about criticism. It wasn’t as if he was looking at people’s outfits and deciding they didn’t look good in red. What I figured was that certain combinations were not pleasing to him because the last time he saw that particular top it was worn with different bottoms. We were inadvertently breaking rules by “wrongly” pairing articles of clothing.
Perhaps this tendency illustrates one of the core symptoms in Autism Spectrum Disorder: restricted and repetitive behaviors and/or interests. Or, maybe this is a feature of Sensory Processing Disorder. The appearance of a certain garment could be unnerving to the senses; the color may be too bright/loud…the texture may evoke an uncomfortable feeling…there might even be a barely detectable scent that offends the observer.
In order to cope with the sensory overload, the individual performs behaviors to avoid the input. Insisting that someone change their clothes by vigorously pointing at them is indeed powerful communication.
Thankfully, most of what I choose to wear doesn’t draw the attention of “The Finger.” I sure don’t want to have him feel uncomfortable or distressed. Yet, giving in to demands can set a precedent that makes flexibility impossible. As a parent, it’s crucial to be mindful of the patterns we may inadvertently establish.
The other day was a bit rough. I decided not to change my outfit. I gently kept repeating “This is what I’m wearing today.” It may seem harsh, and some, I suppose, would say just go change. It’s a valid question: why subject myself to this for hours?
ASD or not, having a child dictate what a parent wears shows the child that he can control others. One thing leads to another thing, and before you know it, everything about your family’s life revolves around the child’s preferences. It reminds me of Helen Keller’s and Anne Sullivan’s story.
Miss Anne Sullivan, Helen Keller’s teacher, mentor, and friend, observed Helen’s family allowing her to routinely grab food off their plates with her hands. “The Miracle Worker” depicts this powerful scene between Miss Sullivan and the Kellers, and ends with Anne’s statement to them: I’ll tell you what I pity: that the sun won’t rise and set for her all her life, and every day you’re telling her it will.
On those difficult days, where, if it’s not about clothing, it’s about tossing the meal you made in the trashcan, or it’s about how every door & window must be shut, or whatever, I remind myself of Miss Sullivan’s words and her persistent, dedicated, resilient ways. She didn’t back down, and she built Helen up. Theirs is an amazing story of courage, fortitude, and commitment.
Today’s a new day, and my attire is similar, yet different, to the other day. Leggings, t-shirt, fleece top. I expect the periscope finger to rise and inspect, and we’ll see if it accepts or rejects the outfit. Either way, I’m prepared.
(This blog post first appeared on VestLife.com)
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Keri, you nailed this one. I was glued to the story to the end.