b is for behavior


– Manner of conducting oneself: typical adolescent behavior includes being contrary.

– Anything that an organism does involving action and response to stimulation.

Monday morning minutes before the school bus arrives, V finds a fleece lined jacket in the downstairs closet: one he refused to wear all winter and I had forgotten all about. Now with temperatures expected in the mid 70s, he puts it on and refuses to take it off. We explain repeatedly in words he understands: “It is going to be a sunny warm day. Take the jacket off!  No jacket on hot days!” But each time I say the word NO he clings to the heavy coat even more.  I give up and let him get on the bus, then quickly send an email to his teacher and case manager M explaining what happened and asking if they can help try to get the darn thing off.

M writes back that the last time this happened (yes, apparently this has happened before  – I must have blocked it from my memory :  ) he told V very emphatically: “Do NOT take that jacket off! Keep it ON!” And V took the jacket right off, a textbook depiction of reverse psychology in action. This time they are not so successful and he keeps the coat on all day. They work around it, bless them, going outside while it is still a bit cool and staying in for the remainder of the afternoon.  He comes home sweaty but smiling, with a note saying that he had a great day otherwise. He runs inside and takes off the coat, which I immediately hide in the attic with the rest of the winter stuff.

Tuesday brings more beautiful warm weather. V has refused to go out in the yard at all this spring. Three seasons of the year it is usually our favorite part of the house, large and well shaded, with ample spots to sit either in the sun or under trees and enjoy even the hottest days.  But not this year and we can’t figure out why. We encourage him repeatedly and he pokes his head out, says “No” and then comes back in.

On Wednesday I try taking a page from M’s playbook.  I open the back door and say “Do NOT go out there! Stay IN, I don’t want you in the yard!” But it doesn’t work. V wants to be outside – it’s his day without school and he takes four walks by the end of the afternoon, but still refuses to so much as step in the yard.  This is especially frustrating on the weekends when I want to garden or T wants to mow the lawn or do other outdoor activities or when both of us would like nothing more than to sit outside and enjoy the nice weather. One of us has to stay inside with V.  

Thursday I try again. I put a small bowl of chips on a table deep in the yard and when V comes home from school hungry I open the door and point.  “Chips!”  A single effective word and he runs out to his favorite snack by his favorite chair (the one that is falling apart, right next to a newer more comfortable chair that he refuses to use) and sits down contentedly, looking around as if remembering that yes, he likes it out in the yard.  But after a few minutes of enjoyment he comes running back inside and we go out for a walk. 

Unpredictable or inexplicable behaviors are common in people with autism, but the fact is we all have behaviors: ways we act  in particular situations; depending on how comfortable we are, what or how much we eat or sleep, who we are with or other environmental factors.  We act differently if we are calm or anxious, tired or well-rested, happy or depressed.  With V, behaviors are often harder to understand, as it is the outward manifestation of how a non-verbal person communicates.   He’s strong-willed and sensitive with limited means to express himself. Which leave us often guessing. Why does he suddenly want to wear the winter coat he’s eschewed?  Why did he spend several summers refusing to go in the water when swimming used to be his favorite activity, then suddenly return to it one year with no explanation? Why is he avoiding the yard this spring?

The most common technique for dealing with challenging behaviors in autism is called ABA or applied behavior analysis. Thankfully it’s not the focus of his school, which has a different relationship-based approach that we find more humane and practical. ABA presumes that there is always a known antecedent – something detectable that triggers or causes a behavior and when eliminated can extinguish the undesired action. Sometimes that works, not just for kids on the spectrum but for anyone.  If you don’t want to eat ice cream at night then don’t buy ice cream at the store and put it in the freezer.  If you want to exercise in the morning leave your workout gear out where you can see it when you get up. There are often common sense changes we can make. Don’t have jackets within reach and then V won’t put a jacket on. But why? Why would he dig into a dark closet and locate a heavy jacket he disliked all winter long and suddenly insist on wearing it?  Often there are no easy answers.

As a genre, I like to watch mysteries: thrillers and whodunnits with twists and turns. Right now I’m watching Mare of Eastwood, in which Kate Winslet pulls off a spot on Philly accent – quite a feat – yet can’t solve the case of who murdered a young woman in a park one night. There are a few episodes to go, so we’ll eventually find out. I have my suspicions but the fact is I rarely guess the right culprit and am usually surprised by the endings. I find it humbling and even invigorating to be surprised. I like when the last little details are revealed and the motive becomes apparent, in the best procedurals when the loose threads get tied together and there is a great AHA! moment. There’s something so satisfying about it all.

With mysterious behaviors, the solution is rarely so neat. Because V’s actions or inaction are so unpredictable in when and how they start and why they happen. We conjecture but we don’t have any solid answers. And because it is hard to know what to expect, we generally have a Plan B. If V won’t get out of the car or put on appropriate clothes or eat his usual breakfast, then we go home, we find something else to eat or do, we roll with it as best we can. Having a Plan B, and even C, however much we hope we don’t need it, allays some anxiety in making plans.

I’m appreciative that his team at school is so understanding, but complete strangers (or anyone who doesn’t know how complicated it is to know what makes him tick) not so much. I try not to care when people stare when he’s dressed all inside out and backwards or acting strange but I’ve never developed a thick enough skin for this life of ours.

It’s Friday and I try, not so successfully, to let go of expectations for this afternoon or the weekend. For now I’ve put the coats and jackets safely up in the attic. I will continue to try to get V in the yard without pushing too hard. It’s only May, who knows what June or July will bring? Something old may stop yet something new may start up, it’s hard to predict. I try not to see behavior as bad or good but simply what is, how we respond or act or move through life, each in our own unique way.

One thought on “b is for behavior

  1. What poignant wisdom for life — rolling with what presents itself; accepting unpredictable and inexplicable behavior with grace and patience and love. Lucky V for parents who love mysteries and love him.


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