What I Learned from my Irritation With my Autistic Son's Tics
Updated: Jan 22
My Irritation with Myself (and not my son's tics)
“Vaughn, can you please keep it down?”
I hate it when I utter this phrase, even though I am selective and deliberate in when I choose to say it to my son. Typically, it tumbles forth when Vaughn’s tics are getting the best of me. Like many children on the spectrum, there are certain sounds, words, or repetitive behaviors my son makes to comfort himself. Thankfully, most of them are harmless and sometimes even comical. But, like many Dads, I have hit a threshold when they start to get the best of me. I’ll either gently reproach my son with the aforementioned “can you please keep it down?” or in my weaker moments, retreat to a different part of the house. In my worst moments, I’ve locked myself in the bathroom with my iPad, scrolling aimlessly through Twitter, a huge thundercloud of shame over my head as I intentionally distance myself from the sounds of the tics, thinking that I am absolutely the worst Dad in the world. I mean really - What Dad can’t tune out something that has just become background noise in his own house?. Maybe I’m the one with an issue with sensory stimuli, and not my son?
My son’s tics come in 3 forms:
1). His most frequent tic is where he burrows the knuckles of his hands vigorously into his cheeks , shakes his hands on either side of his nose, and lets out a low nonsense word that sounds like “Quiiiijjjjjjjj” similar to J K Rowling’s game “Quiddage” - but without the second syllable.
2). His second is where he pushes air through his cheeks repeatedly, sounding a bit like a creaking door opening and closing. To my surprise, he can repeat this noise for extended periods of time.
3). Lastly, he’ll string together a series of low nonsense words punctuated with high pitched squeals.
The melodic cadence of this last tic is what makes it my favorite, and the easiest to ignore due to its overall pleasantness.
One time I was on a flight to Florida for a business trip. A family of three sat in the row behind me: a mother, father, and son – who was pretty close to my own son’s age. During the flight, I heard the boy making occasional low nonsense phrases, punctuated by reproaches from his mom, which sounded strikingly similar to how I talk to my own son. I wanted to spin in my seat, flash a comforting smile and say “It’s okay. I totally get it! I’m not bothered at all by your son. My son does the exact same thing!” which was the truth, but I couldn’t do it. If I had been that Mom, the affirming comments would have actually made me self-conscientious, and had the opposite effect on me. Instead, I chose my opening more carefully. When the plane landed, I heard both parents compliment their son, and even eavesdropped on their conversation enough to overhear that this was his first flight.
“There’s my opening” I thought to myself.
"Was this his first flight?” I said, as all of the passengers were now standing in the aisles, queueing up to leave the plane.
“Oh yes!” she said with a relieved smile.
“What a remarkable boy!” I said looking at her directly in the eye.
“My son has flown several times and gets pretty restless. I didn’t even know there was anyone behind me. ”
Within this sentence, I infused two lies. One, my son has been nothing but excellent on airplane flights. Two, I was completely aware of him behind me. Despite the tics, he truly was very well-behaved, better than most kids, so he and his parents fully earned this compliment.
“Thank you” she said with the relieved smile, smoothing her hair away from her forehead.
Funny, how I can show compassion to a strange mom and her son, and yet can’t seem to give myself and my son the same level of compassion. And perhaps this is the lesson for me – be kind to yourself, do your best, and know you will have moments of impatience. And when you’re down – just lie to yourself, maybe even throw in a well-timed compliment, and tell yourself you’re okay.