How to Survive an Autistic Threenager (no seriously how??)

Our threenager uses his cuteness to get us to do exactly what he wants.

Our threenager is a curious creature. He is often dormant, living in our happy, affectionate, loving and healthy little toddler. He is so cute that saying no to him is almost impossible. His hugs and kisses are deadly weapons. No one can resist his big blue eyes. His favourite times to show his ‘character’ are when we are running late, when I need to go to the loo, or at bedtime.

Our threenager has the strength of ten men and the patience of one tenth of one. He is positive that being made to sit still for over five seconds at a time is a torture tactic and he is allowed to use military methods against anyone that does this to him. Red lights are his most dreaded enemy. Especially the ones on the 3km drive to his therapy centre. Along with BEDTIME. You must never use the word BEDTIME in the presence of a threenager. BEDTIME makes him stronger and more stubborn than ever. He eats BEDTIME (and my soul) for breakfast – which is roughly when he decides to have a nap.

We never really went through the terrible twos with Michael. Honestly I thought that was just something parents went through that were too scared to stand up to their kids. Sensory issues aside, Michael is a sweet tempered, happy little boy. He is well behaved and my little angel.

Lately however we have some unmistakable signs that he is becoming a threenager. To be clear these are not BAD things. Some of it is bad behaviour, and we deal with it appropriately, but other times it is just stubborn bloody-mindedness and honestly I LOVE IT. Even though it can make my life incredibly difficult, I love that he is getting his own likes, his own wants, and that he perseveres until his needs are met. Whatever else he doesn’t have, this kid has so much personality he could easily lend some to a few other toddlers and still have enough left over to terrorize a small village of female relatives.

Raising a three year old Gandhi

You know when Flores stands on that table in Orange is the New Black? For those that don’t watch the show (you should), it’s a moment when an inmate is punished for not showering by a guard by being made to stand on a table until she relents and has that shower. She doesn’t relent and stands there for days, not sleeping, not eating, and soiling herself. It becomes a symbol of rebelling against authority.

My three year old has done that. If he doesn’t want to go to bed yet, it doesn’t matter how tired he is – he will not go to bed. Yes we can put him in bed. But he will stand up in it. For half an hour. I timed it. And even once he’s too tired to stand, he will sit. He will by no means lie down until at least one hour has passed and he just simply cannot sit down anymore. Yes I’m living with a three year old Gandhi who is philosophically opposed to napping.

Some features of our threenager

There are things that need to be done on his time, and in his way. He could be exhausted and about to drop but if you try to put the pram down, he will sit up. Over and over. He won’t get out of the pram to go on the swing (because, you know, exhausted). But he won’t lie down because he doesn’t want to lie down and you’re wrong and he’s not tired even. Of course, three seconds later he will fall asleep sitting up in the same pram, but the important thing is that he stood his ground (metaphorically) and is still upright at the time.

Many people, mostly women, often ask me if I get bored staying at home with Michael. Well, sometimes I do. But very rarely. Figuring out Michael is a constant headache challenge. Especially since he just keeps changing and growing!

He does things on his terms

Last week Michael ate all his vegetables and meat, all together, with no protest and only a rather loud chewing sound. He didn’t so much eat his food as he inhaled it, especially anything involving meat or chicken. This week he started to refuse his vegetables. I actually had to apply ABA principles to get him to eat his green beans – one bite of bean, then one bite of chicken – because of how much he wanted all his chicken NOW!!! I persevered but once he had finished his chicken I sat down with the remaining vegetables. And you know the funniest part? Michael came right over and stole half my food. He ate all his vegetables, but it was on HIS terms and in the order HE wanted to eat them.

Raising him at this age can be challenging and exhilarating at the same time. Yes some of it involves staying firm and tolerating screams that are so high and loud, I’m sure the dogs over in western Australia can hear him. Other times it involves knowing I’m too tired and he will defeat me, so I should just give him what he wants before the screams materialise. A good general always knows what battles he is not equipped to win. Constant creativity and flexibility is required. But it’s also important to see the positives. The amazing little (ok very very big) personality behind it all.

He wants to reorganise his world

What is very interesting about most of these episodes is they often do not involve tantrums or bad behaviour. Sometimes they do, and we deal with it. But often Michael is just very persistent about reorganizing the world in the way HE wants it to be. He will sit up in the pram, he will resist sitting in the car seat (no screaming, just passive resistance in the previously mentioned style of Gandhi) and he will come and get me over and over until I get him the food that he wants or find the cartoon he wants to see. It doesn’t matter if I am distracted or trying to go to the bathroom alone (yeah, like that will ever happen). He will come, he will drag me where he wants to be, and he will ask for help. Which is just wonderful!

His PECS isn’t quite advanced enough for him to be able to ask for specific things he wants by choosing a picture. But he is getting incredibly good at pointing to the thing he wants. Down to the specific food on the plate that he feels like this moment, or which toy he wants on the shelf.

He is Better at Manipulating his Environment

In every way he has become better at manipulating his environment to suit himself. And by environment I mean myself. Does he want me to lie down? He will come up behind me and gently pull me down onto the floor. If he wants me to lie down with him onto a pillow, he has a very good technique for getting me to put my head in the precise location that will allow him to be squeezed between my head and the wall. This little boy has it made!

Anyway I know that there are many challenges to raising autistic threenagers. Most of them involve managing behaviour in the same way you would do it with a child of any other age. That’s what my behaviour therapists are for. Many things are harder with Michael than with a typical child because he doesn’t understand explanations and I can’t ever tell him ‘please get in the pram we’re going to the park, not to sleep’. But I’ve recently reading this book about embracing limitations and making the most out of the resources you do have.

So I’ve decided to do this by looking at all the positives. Basically I got very drunk this morning (on sugar) and made a list of all the great things about having a threenager that happens to be nonverbal and autistic:

Why I’m Lucky My Threenager is Autistic

  1. Michael doesn’t care what he wears, although he prefers to be wearing nothing if possible. Therefore he does not insist on choosing his own clothes and does not change five times a day. He just wears what I put him in, as long as it’s comfortable. And since he looks super cute just in a nappy I do that waay more than I should.
  2. He can’t open boxes or the fridge. Usually he doesn’t know that food comes from the fridge and assumes it comes from the microwave. Therefore if he wants a snack he has to ask me. If I put them into a simple little box, he can’t get it out and spill it over the floor. So I can control every little piece since he has to bring the box to me every time. Although if I forget to cover the box, there’s all kinds of trouble.
  3. He doesn’t really understand that toys and items can be hidden places. If I don’t want him to access a particular item (like my dirty shoes) I just put them in a cupboard. It can even be quite low down, as he doesn’t open it anyway (even though he can) because he doesn’t quite grasp that they are right there behind that door.
  4. Also he can’t talk back or negotiate with me. Being non-verbal and all. He IS quite good at arguing though and to be honest wins about 90% of our arguments so when he does learn how to communicate better I am in big trouble.
  5. He won’t ask for three of everything. Because he can’t count or understand the concept of numbers. He just has as much of everything food-related as can fit in his capacious tummy.
  6. I don’t need to make my food exciting or cut sandwiches into shapes. Mostly because he doesn’t understand shapes or pay attention to what things look like. Michael is not superficial, he just wants food – preferably meat, hopefully in unlimited amounts.
  7. He will never make me sit with him for two hours while playing tea parties. He will not care if I make a playdough dog vs a playdough snake. Michael will also never paint on the walls due to his total lack of interest in any kind of art. I have done all of these things with nieces and nephews and jumping around on pillows with Michael is WAAAY easier!
  8. He will never try to buckle the seat belt himself. That’s what mummy slaves are for. This saves me at least fifteen minutes.
  9. We will never argue about bedtime stories and he will never make me read him the same story over and over. Actually he won’t even look at a book for a minute. So I can chill with him while watching nursery rhymes on the iPad (go me!).

I love my little threenager. Now I’m off for a nap while his therapists handle him for a few hours. Because surviving him is all about the sleep!

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