I mentioned in our last post that we had been on a bit of a roller coaster ride with the start of the new school year. One of the difficult experiences was an incident with James and a well loved tutor. The incident involved James being aggressive towards her which is unusual for him. A friend and health practitioner reminded me at the time that the stress and aggression pathways in the brain are closely tied. It is true for all of us (ie, road rage) but acutely true for people who have autism. I think the stress and frustration of not being able to communicate for years and years causes aggressive habits to develop and they are hard to break.
James ended up writing about it on the first day back at Literature class when there was a timed essay. The prompt was: “The lessons we take from failure can be fundamental to later success. Recount an incident or time when you experienced failure. How did it effect you, and what did you learn from the experience?” James wrote about his experience with his tutor and entitled it:
My vision turns red. My hands strike out. Hair tangles around my fingers. Cries and demands float through my brain, yet I cannot release my grip. Hands grasp my arms and a male voice cuts through my fog. I look – I see – what I have done. I have failed.
Most people lack similar experiences so this event might seem like a fictional plot device, but I have a long history of such incidents, although none to this degree. I am autistic so I struggle when most people could cope, and unfortunately my reaction can be aggressive. I am not aggressive. I never intend to hurt anyone, and that distinction usually saves my conscience. Generally, my tutors and therapists impose consequences for my behavior, but then we forgive each other and discuss the cause of my reaction. Autism and communication limitations tend to receive most of the blame so we make a plan and we try again tomorrow.
But this outburst was different.
After I finally learned how to reliably communicate, my goals transferred to regulating my reactions and impulses. For over two years, I worked daily to master these goals and I remained aggression-free for almost one year. That does not mean that all of my interactions with tutors were amicable, but I continuously reminded myself that my impulse to grab remains unacceptable in any situation. All that progress, however, just capsized. I failed the basic rule when I hurt another person – I failed to recognize her humanity.
Although all seemed broken and unrepairable, I learned a valuable lesson from this incident. I felt the most remorse I have ever endured. My victimized tutor held me, not my autism, accountable and she refused to continue as my tutor. For the first time, my behavior caused me to lose a relationship. My parents oscillated between yelling at me and ignoring me, but they definitely expressed their disappointment in me – not my autism. For once, I was treated as a typical teen, and I needed that reality. All of my privileges were revoked: no outings, no computer, and no social visits. As an electronic addicted extrovert, these punishments were severe, but my mother’s words inflicted the worst punishment: this incident branded me as aggressive.
My real lesson surfaced when I realized what an aggressive label meant. Since I am seventeen, public aggression can result in prison or an institution because I am a danger to society. I rarely have any incidents in public, so this concern seemed unrealistic, but my parents emphasized that most groups exclude aggressive applicants. This daunting possibility impacts my career, housing, social groups, and any classes I want to enroll in.
This warning, however, failed to compare to the immediate implications of an aggressive label. We must now inform future tutors of my rare, but possible aggression. Every applicant will begin their training biased and apprehensive about my behavior. Their first impression will now be tainted by my past, and I will need to overcome this negative perception.
The people who choose to teach me have their own lives, their own emotions, and their own flaws. I cannot impinge on their human rights by allowing my frustrations and impulses to cause them harm. I failed, but I learned the true impact of that failure. Society will no longer tolerate or excuse my aggressive behaviors and incidents like this massive failure will have significant consequences because I am no longer a child. I – not my autism – am responsible for my actions and their consequences will shape my future. To me, this realization, marks success. I might stumble, but never again will I blame my autism or feel validated for my reactions.