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.
Speechless. Please tell James we ALL have our vices and moments of failure and regret – we learn, we try to do better every day. He is inspiring others… I can imagine how difficult as parents too that was for you to distinguish your punishment on the behavior and the “autism”.
Thanks for all your support and encouragement Donna, yes this was hard on everyone.
My heart goes out to you!
I know that it’s not the same, but I want to tell you my story.
In first grade, I was labeled as “too young to be in the top reading group.” Never mind that I was already reading above that top reading group’s level long since at home! But because I was small and young for the grade, I got labeled and wasn’t allowed to read aloud in class — except with the low level group. I still remember that hurtful first few weeks of first grade.
My mother stepped in, and the problem was rectified. Still, for at least a decade, I was apprehensive about being prejudged by teachers. I was terrified to speak in class — even to ask a question. And, sometimes, I wouldn’t answer questions in class because I was scared of being wring and again being judged as “too young for the grade.”
I clammed up. I was the introvert of all time.
All that age stuff vanished once I was in college. And I came out of my shell to become the person whom you know today. Would you ever have guess that I was such a scaredy cat?
So, I tell you now: labels are NOT forever. They CAN be overcome.
Be remorseful — fine. But do not be disheartened.
Typo alert! Guessed, not guess. Sorry about that.
Oh such encouraging words, thank you so much for sharing your story. And keep hanging in there-we are all praying constantly and James can’t wait to see you today.
Wow James, you continue to inspire others and step out in courage. If only we all were so willing to admit our failures and learn from them. Often our performance is not the measure of success, it is the change in our character that matters!
Bless you, James. A very hard lesson, I can tell. But I appreciate your repentant heart and your desire to move beyond labels (something you’ve done so well!). It’s hard to have parents who hold you accountable and doubly hard when there always “seem” to be extenuating circumstances to excuse the behavior, but there’s wisdom in understanding that they love you and want what’s best for you and for your future. It sounds like you’ve learned a lot! Bless you, bless you!
Thank you Debbie! You have been such a faithful supporter and friend-we are grateful!
I am blessed by the friendship with you and James….Your strength and commitment continue to be an example. God bless you, Brooke.
James, very much policing yourself is difficult. Lack of earning the trust of therapists is also tough. Trying to overcome that is amazing and trying to move forward is very brave.