There’s a place off Highway 50, about 45 miles east of Sacramento and 60 miles west of South Lake Tahoe, that is pure gold. Well, pure gold figuratively, but also literally, in the past. Placerville is a Gold Rush era town that was a central hub for the Mother Lode region’s gold mining operations. As a hub, it had banks, markets, hotels, a general store, and a hardware store. And a hanging tree.

At its incorporation in 1854, “Old Hangtown” was the third largest town in the state of California (CA became a state in September of 1850). It even boasted a relay station for the Pony Express Trail from April 1860 to June 1861. A quaint town with a rich history, Placerville is a perfect place to wile away a weekend afternoon.

So on a beautifully temperate day in mid June, we made the easy drive along Highway 50 and arrived in Placerville around 1:30. It’s only after Placerville, heading east, that the road becomes narrower and curvier. Thankfully, no car sickness for any of us. But our stomachs were churning due to hunger, so a small café along Main Street did the trick. On the way to the café Zach spotted an ice cream parlor, which naturally meant we had to check if they sold sorbet (going non-diary is not always easy). To our surprise, the fountain did have sorbet, so it was one of those eat-dessert-first kind of meals. You know how that goes sometimes, don’t you?

After our lovely lunch, we walked down Main Street, popping in and out of various shops, prospecting for antiques. Zach is great with this sort of thing; he likes walking around and is generally content drifting in and out of stores. Somehow, his eagle eyes always (and I do mean always) spot a box of crayons or other art supplies in the most unlikely of places. This time, it was a Strawberry Shortcake coloring book for sale in a second-hand store. Didn’t matter that a few of the pages already had scribbles.

Golden sunlight shone in our eyes as we strolled west, and the temperature grew hotter. The flower boxes along Main Street seemed in need of refreshment. Every so often a door would open and release a puff of cold air from the air-conditioned shop within; a welcome coincidence. Zach doesn’t like to see perspiration on people’s faces; must be a pet-peeve of his. So as we walked (our steps getting slower with the day’s heat) he would occasionally lean over, examine my forehead, and wipe my face with the palm of his hand. He did this gently, and it was something I was used to. I think it fascinated him because his own brow rarely, if ever, released sweat.

Even though present-day influences meet your eye as you stroll along, you can still feel the history emanating from the surroundings. I could imagine wrinkly and dusty miners entering a bar after long hours of panning. I could almost envision crowds gathering around the hanging tree for…well, you get the idea.

As we neared the end of the shops on one side of the street and paused before crossing Main Street, Zach let out a major scream. It was completely unexpected. We stopped in our tracks. People in front of us turned around and stared. A person driving by with their window rolled down seemed to lean out a bit too far and gawk a bit too long.

“What…what is it?” I leaned into him as he stood frozen on the sidewalk, a look of anger in his eyes. One of his flip-flopped feet was on the cement, and the other was in the dirt of a shallow planter surrounding a tree. I thought maybe he twisted his ankle. He screamed again, and this time, before I knew what was happening, his arm reached up and his fingers grabbed my hair. At the scalp.

My instinct was to double over. I quickly put my hands on top of his clenched hand, and I yelled to my husband to secure his other arm. If Zach had been able to lace five other fingers into more of my hair, we’d have had a major issue. Not that having my hair lifted from my scalp by five fingers wasn’t already a major issue.

I widened my stance and, thanks to years of observing a masterful behavior tech who worked with my son, went into “stay very calm” mode. There were tears welling up in my eyes which I could not contain. In this hunched-over position with legs firmly planted, I was all too aware of my vulnerability.

“What’s going on!!” shrieked my husband. “Are you alright? Zach, let go of Mom! Let GO!”

Those fingers clenched tighter. I immediately had to rely on my teacher instincts. In as calm and neutral a voice as possible, I squeaked, “Just stop. Don’t yell or he’ll pull harder. Keep his right arm secure. Keep him next to me…close to me. Don’t do anything else. Don’t pull him away. Don’t tell him what to do or not do.”

I was focusing on my sandals and the blue-polished toes sticking out. Somehow the color helped me focus. Beads of sweat mixed with tears began rolling down my face and plunking into the bone dry dirt. They were so profuse that little puddles were forming in the grit of the planter. The narrow sidewalk on the edge of Main Street left little wiggle room, and people who were passing by either didn’t know what was happening or didn’t want to become involved. That was fine with me. Often, strangers don’t see a situation like that for what it really is, and their assistance may make things worse. The last thing we need in an unpredictable situation is a complete stranger getting socked in the face for trying to be a Good Samaritan.

Hangman’s Tree Historic Site, Placerville, CA

We stood there for a while, waiting for Zach’s fingers to emancipate my hair. In my doubled-over position, wincing, I caught site of the ice cream parlor where we were earlier. The sign next door said Hangman’s Tree. For full effect and perhaps a touch of dark humor, hanging from the corner of the roof was a dummy resembling a miner in a plaid shirt, beige pants, and red bandana. I wondered how many people walked by and never noticed this.

I suddenly felt my scalp retract and flatten like a bunched up area rug being smoothed out. “I have both his hands.” my husband proclaimed. I stood up very slowly, keeping my eyes on his hands. I wasn’t sure if I was seeing stars from the pain or from being folded in half for so long. I looked around.

“We need to go across the street to that alley; we need to regroup. This isn’t over…” I said, as I checked Zach’s visage for a reading. Fortunately and reliably, his facial expressions speak volumes about his state of mind.


The right side of my head was throbbing and felt like an iron had been pressed onto my skull. The tears were still rolling as I took a very deep breath. We crossed the street mindfully, each of us taking hold of an arm. Once safely across the street, we used the alley as a break room. It was empty and relatively out of sight from the busy sidewalk. We released Zach’s arms and backed off. He let out more squeals as we looked at each other, completely baffled by what brought this on.

Did he want more sorbet and grew angry we didn’t go back to the parlor? Did someone bump into him and hurt him? We didn’t think so, but it was possible. Did he roll his ankle in that depression around the tree? Also possible, but he was walking fine. Did he drop something? We had all our stuff. Did his shoe break? (Sometimes the Y-shaped strap of the flip-flop separates and it pisses him off). Nope. Did one of us use a trigger word in his presence which set him off? Again, possible, but that reaction was certainly drastic!

I looked toward the sidewalk at one point and noticed a rather shabbily dressed man standing there and watching us. Honestly, he looked like an 1850s miner. Zach had kicked the brick wall, and I thought the man saw this. I was afraid he was going to think that either I, the female in the group, was being attacked by two men, or, we, the parents of the screaming boy, were somehow abusing him because, after all, he was vocalizing pain. The man raised his arm as if to catch my attention, and I walked a bit closer to him.

“Need some help there, Miss?” he asked.

“No, thanks. We’re alright. Just waiting out a bad moment. Thank you.”

The man shuffled around for a few seconds and then walked away. I hoped he was not in search of a police officer. Again, police can sometimes misconstrue a situation involving a person with autism, because at first glance, it’s not obvious you’re encountering autism. And that can infuse a situation with fear just when it’s starting to calm.

I breathed more deeply to calm my shaking muscles, wiped my eyes, and rubbed my scalp. I turned around to see Zach repeatedly “smoothing” his chest. Something told me from the start, he did not intentionally decide to have a tug-o-war with my hair; it had to be something we did not understand. I approached him calmly, as we do after any situation where he’s escalated and aggressive. Part of me wanted to yell, part of me wanted to cry, part of me wanted to hug him. I did none of the above.

“You’re sorry?” I asked, recognizing his ASL gesture for I’m sorry. He nodded yes and had a pleading look on his face.

“OK. Thank you. I see that you’re sorry. Can you tell me with your device what upset you?”

He continued to sign sorry. I checked him over quickly for signs of injury, a possible burn mark from a cigarette, a scratch, anything. Nothing. We walked on, perplexed. I didn’t have even a nugget of a clue as to what brought that on. Later that night, the cause revealed itself like a speck of gold in a miner’s pan…

Some may think that when a youngster acts out or displays aggression, the best response is to make it more than clear to the child he or she is doing something “bad” or “wrong.” The child must learn the error of his ways, right? The tendency might be to yell or rely on your own physical actions to curtail the child’s behavior. We’ve all seen a parent grab the arm of a screaming child and pull him off a line or out of a store. Perhaps we have witnessed a toddler being spanked in the middle of a tantrum. Of course there are plenty of movie scenes depicting a rage-filled teenager lashing out at a parent who, in response, slaps them across the face.

It is perhaps human instinct to meet force with force. Think about scenes in old Westerns where a cowboy drinking his whiskey at the bar gets punched by a gunslinger. Inevitably, the cowboy turns, decks the gunslinger, and all hell breaks loose. Guys who had no involvement are suddenly throwing punches at each other. Glass shatters…furniture breaks. It’s quite chaotic in the blink of an eye.

Now think about a heated situation between a kid and a parent. But this time, sprinkle in autism. You’d have a very different dynamic. A dynamic where meeting force with force will rapidly and dangerously heighten the intensity of behaviors. Where responding in kind will not resolve the problem but will instead lead to greater injury and destruction. You may be facing shattered glass and broken furniture literally.

But acting with calmness and neutrality in the face of a personal attack? Come on!! What good is that? I am guessing there are people who walked by us that day and thought that kid would be sooooo grounded… or…I’d smack that kid right now! Or, what in the Sam Hill is wrong with those parents – they’re not doing a damn thing! But the thing is, we were doing precisely the best thing to remit the behavioral outburst. To keep Zach and the situation from escalating beyond our control. There’s more to it than meets the eye.

Kids like Zach have difficulty understanding social norms, and appropriate behavior is a social norm. Autism disturbs social/emotional development, and although parents like us do (and continue to) teach appropriate behaviors and coping mechanisms, the concept is exceedingly difficult for those with autism to grasp. The skills are exquisitely perplexing to learn. Sometimes, with autism, mastery of a skill can take years, and sometimes, it doesn’t happen at all.

Also in the mix is an immature, possibly damaged, neurological system. Think of immature as meaning “not yet having developed.” This can lead to inconsistent capability in making a rational choice in the presence of fear, pain, worry, etc. The person with autism, through no fault of their own, can experience immense frustration comprehending their own emotional state AND communicating that to others. How does the parent of a child or teen with autism then guide or teach their child about developing self control and making alternate, rational choices with their behavior?

It has to do with modeling. All the time. In every situation. With every behavioral outburst. Modeling. Part of the effort is remaining calm; modeling calm. In the moment of anguish, no matter what’s causing it, you choose calm. The person with autism will pick up on that. If I can make calm contagious, I have a better chance of resolving the tension and getting through a heated moment without injury. Because, like we see in a Western, chaos is contagious too.

Another part of the effort is not taking it personally. I try – key word try – to not react to alarming behavior as if it is personal. When my brain says it’s personal, my body is more likely to respond in kind. Force met with force. And if my body is then modeling force, how exactly am I teaching a more appropriate response to an uncomfortable, unsettling feeling, sensation, or experience?

Does remaining calm and neutral in the face of an outburst give the behavior a “pass?” I think not. If I were to make a big to-do about my hair being grabbed, I risk imprinting that escalated moment in my son’s mind. And worse, I risk injury to myself and others, including him!

It took me a while and many, many hours of watching a Registered Behavior Technician  work with my son to shape my thinking. I’m not done learning. I’ve had to consider this: by not reacting to rage through a display of our own anger about it, are we rewarding the potentially harmful behavior? Does he get away with hostility if we don’t make an impression on him about that hostility? I’ve come to realize that approaching Zach’s unpredictable behavior means making my approach predictable to him. If I match his rage, if I meet his outburst with an outburst, I become unpredictable to him. Given his social and emotional learning deficits, unpredictability raises his stress and fear. It adds fuel to the fire.

This is where the complication of dealing with autism must create a paradigm shift. This shift indicates that calmness and neutrality are NOT equivalent to permitting bad behavior. It’s not, in my perspective, like we’re letting our son get away with something. If I put myself in his shoes for a minute, and watched myself responding, what would I see? If I saw intensity coming at me, verbally or physically, is that any different from his behavior? Would it be acceptable for me to act “like that” because I’m angry about similar behavior in him? I’m not sure this approach would accomplish anything positive. If I felt calmness and patience though, just maybe I’d assume calmness myself. Our reaction to escalated behavior requires composure and objectivity. Someone wise proclaimed that it’s impossible for an escalated adult to de-escalate an escalated child. That’s a nugget of truth for you.

Once home that evening, we removed shoes before going inside. Zach is sometimes reluctant to do this. So, I knelt and slid off the flip flops one at a time. And there it was. The speck of gold in the pan!  On the top of his tanned foot, where the wide strap sat, was a large, red welt. In the center, a tiny hole, made perhaps by a stinging insect. A wasp? A bee?

“Oh my gosh! Zach! Can I see your foot?”

He lifted the reddened foot to my lap, nodded yes, and vocalized.

“This must have hurt. Is this why you grabbed me? Because you were hurt and didn’t know why?” I wanted to cry.

He looked me straight in the eye with those big blue pupils and nodded yes.

“I understand. I understand why that hurt. Oh Zach…I wish I knew that this happened. I didn’t know. I’m sorry.” And with that, he signed sorry to me again.

Zach was sucker punched by a wasp. He was the cowboy at the bar minding his own business when a bad guy in a yellow jacket showed up and socked him. And I was the bartender who unwittingly took a hit.

Having empathy for a boy who struggles to understand the social and emotional world around him is necessary for relating to him. When you imagine being unexpectedly stung, confused by why you have pain, and unable to tell anyone, there arises within you sadness, alongside compassion. When his behavior escalates, no matter the cause, I try to remind myself of the severe limitations he is burdened by. Thankfully, he is living in an era where we can find compassion, acceptance, and respect for different abilities. Had we been living in the 1850s, his options for a good life would be little to none.

As I doused his foot in lavender oil, he asked if he could color. Crayons to Zach are like gold nuggets to miners. Their brightness can be spotted when you look hard enough. Their value comes to life when used for creating something beautiful. For me, finding more ways to influence behavior (not control behavior) is the gold I seek. I’ll keep searching for ways to teach him about self-regulation and coping with pain, fear, frustration. I’ll continue pickaxing into Zach’s potential; there’s a gold mine inside of him. When it’s revealed, I truly will have found a mother lode of treasure.

Painting by Zach – 2019

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