“Who wants to go to the pumpkin patch?”
Every year in late October my son’s school takes a field trip to a local “pumpkin patch and family fun park”. For the last two years, I have gone as well. Many parents join the expedition as chaperones or drivers, but I am there specifically to ensure that my son does not have an “episode”.
Three years ago, before I began attending, there was an incident. At some point during the train ride my son became unaccountably agitated, and behaved aggressively toward the aide who was accompanying him, biting her on the arm. Afterward he had to be isolated from the other children while they calmed him down.
We weren’t surprised when we heard the news. There had been several similar incidents before then, and the field trip itself was a minefield of triggers. It was a full day of unstructured time, for instance, and my son fares best when there is routine. Riding the train was a novel experience, and it’s hard to tell in advance how he will react to such things. Perhaps most significantly, there was no way to exit the vehicle once he began to get agitated. Normally, when we or one of his teachers sense that he is becoming upset, we quickly intervene to separate him from the “antecedent”, as they say in ABA. In a situation like a train however, where there is no escape, there may also be no way to circumvent an outburst .
That was a rough year for him, and he has since gotten much better. Still, the school asks that I accompany him on these trips, as a precaution.
Because my son is largely non-verbal, he doesn’t tell us when he’s happy or sad or angry. We instead have to infer his internal state from his actions and demeanor. When happy he laughs, and displays boundless exuberance. He cries when sad – sometimes body-wracking sobs for reasons unknown to us. When he is angry he often lashes out, grabbing or pinching, and in extreme cases biting. Usually these are just fleeting moments of aggression, but occasionally he will fly into a rage, at which point it becomes exceedingly difficult to de-escalate the situation.
This became such a problem that we genuinely worried that he would get kicked out of school. Our greatest fear was that he would behave aggressively toward another child. Fortunately, these episodes conformed to the general rule that he ignores all except those with whom he is most familiar. Thus, the targets of these attacks were usually his teacher, aides, and parents, and we have all learned strategies for defusing the situation.
Over the last few years these incidents have become, on average, less frequent and severe. This is partly because he is maturing, I’m sure. But it’s also because we’ve become skilled at predicting what will disturb him, and steering clear of those circumstances. When we rode the train at the pumpkin patch today, for instance, I took a number of steps to minimize the chance that he would become upset. We waited until there wasn’t a line so we could board immediately, and wouldn’t find ourselves in the middle of a crowd. We sat by ourselves, at the front of a car. I held his hand to make sure he felt secure. And I watched him vigilantly out of the corner of my eye, for any sign of agitation. Whether because of these precautions, or due to factors beyond my ken, he remained calm for the entire ride, and asked to go again.
I’ve always been something of an existentialist, believing that we can never truly know what’s in the mind of another. Others may tell us what they are purportedly thinking and feeling, but even then you can never really know if they are telling the truth, or if their perception of emotion is synonymous with your own. With my son, you don’t even get this. All you can do is look at the shadows on the cave wall and guess as to what are casting them.
And even though we know our son better than anyone, we still cannot predict with anything resembling certainty how he will react to any given situation. His moods are as volatile and unpredictable as the weather. Our ability to forecast has improved over the years, but even we carry umbrellas.