Something about the way he broke that day reminded me that living is cross-shaped.
“Adam has been crying for the last few hours,” she says to me, the aide instead of the teacher, walking carefully to my window as I park the car.
“The last few hours?”
Oh, how the living hurts, how it drives its nails deep. Our selfishness really does make a bruised, ugly mess.
My friend, the one who knows this word-starved world like I do, slides into the back seat, listening, her brow furrowed. Riley passes her a cup of coffee.
“He’s having a moment,” the aide says, tentatively, and all I can think is, a few hours is not a moment.
“Well, I don’t know if you want to go in…or if you want me to tell them you’re here, but he’s been screaming and knocking over chairs and crying for a while now.”
Grief catches in my throat, and I look back at my friend, thankful for all the things we don’t have to explain to each other. She nods. “Go ahead. I’ll wait here with Riley.”
A few things I know: Adam has never exploded this way, never with so much broken rage, never with so much pain. The thought makes me ache, moves my feet purposefully across the pavement, keeps my eyes focused on the big doors at the front of the building.
I also know that whatever caused this, Adam’s teacher has the situation under control. I know this before I reach the door. He has a wonderful teacher, and she knows that the broken moments offer the most fertile ground for learning. For these last hours, I know she has been steadfastly teaching, trying to break through, trying to help him understand.
But before I reach the doors, they walk out together. Adam looks at me, eyes red-rimmed but clear. He sniffles and passes a hand under his nose, shifting his gaze up the sidewalk toward the van. He has worn himself out with rage, that much is clear.
“Your son has had a hard day,” his teacher says gravely, beginning, then tells me about a day of almost issues, how a spirit of complaint simmered low. Each time she’d asked him to do something, he’d murmured his disgust, his I don’t want to under his breath, coming out in few words, sticky with angst. His eyes flashed at her warnings, his finger writing in the air. For a hyperlexic child who struggles to speak, it’s the gestural equivalent of smart mouth. He had barely gotten by without marks against his behavior. And then. She’d insisted that he rewrite his home journal neatly.
“No write slowly today,” he’d said, erasing, and then, “write slow is finished, home journal is finished.” I’m not really sure the exact words, but I’ve heard this argumentative spewing before. When a child can’t speak, even these words at first are treasures, collected, held in the palms, saved. But words can be an elixir or a poison, and nothing good comes from vomiting out all our selfishness, all our sigh-edged negativity. Eventually, we move from drawing out words to shaping their intent.
“So, I warned him,” Adam’s teacher continues, “and he did okay and held it together, and then he went to put his things away and when he turned his back on me, he started writing in the air again, telling me off. And then I told him to bring me his behavior sheet. I’d already put it in his book bag, with a few notes about the borderline moments.” None of us ever wanted Adam to lose his reward. She holds out the sheet, pointing at these, muted where she’d erased the words. “But when I changed his day to ‘okay,’ that’s when he lost it. He cried and thrashed and kicked and screamed for over an hour. We had to move things to be sure he wouldn’t hurt himself by falling into or on top of something. I just calmly told him that he’d have to sit there until he stopped. Every time he started up again, I’d reset the timer, until finally, just now, he made it thirty minutes without crying or screaming.”
I look at Adam, turning his chin toward me with one finger. Desperately, I want to wrap my arms around him and soothe the hurt, but first I have to deal with his misbehavior. “NO,” I say, shaking my head. “No screaming at your teachers. No, sir.”
Adam’s mouth pulls down at the corners, twitching. His eyes turn to pools, and he sniffles again. Inside, I am ripped apart by his sadness.
“Adam, that is not okay,” I say to him. “It is not okay to scream at teachers. No screaming at teachers.”
He looks away from me, then back, his frown deepening, and even though he grows long and lean, I have to press my arms against my sides not to scoop him up.
“This is the first remorse I’ve seen,” his teacher says, watching him. “I don’t know what happened today. I’ve never seen him behave like that.”
I shake my head, puzzling over it with her, all our shattering. Sometimes everything breaks apart, and all our hidden pain pours through the cracks.
“I used to have to sit with Adam at the top of the stairs on the bench in the hall and have ‘anger management’ classes. He used to fly into a rage and try to hit his head against the wall. But I haven’t seen him have a tantrum in a long time.”
“I wonder…if he’s lost hope,” Adam’s teacher says, as we walk together toward the van, “if he figures, ‘Well, if I’ve lost my reward by Tuesday, what good is it to try?'” These conversations always leave me thankful for shared history, for a teacher who loves my children and expects much, for our ability to work together.
“That could be.”
We’ve been working on Adam’s behavior for a while, trying different things, looking for ways to be sure he understands. At first, I had used too many words spoken, not enough written. I asked questions Adam probably doesn’t understand, made speeches that must’ve sounded to him like garbled nonsense. Gently, Adam’s teacher had reminded me of things I know:
- Not so many words.
- Write it down.
- If necessary, add visual support.
- Be sure he understands what you expect, not just that you don’t like what he’s doing.
For most people with autism, these guidelines hold true, with some edits allowing for individualism. Both of my autistic children have hyperlexia, so for us, the writing is essential. I realized, as she gently reminded, that somewhere subconscious, somewhere buried deep, I had been rebelling against the disability. Sometimes I just long to be free of the heavy things, to walk away. I am certain Adam feels this way too, so ready for a break from the work of living.
So, individually, Adam’s teacher and I had created more structured behavior systems to help him at home and at school. I had made a simple grid on our dry erase board, the place where every day I write the schedule, where I scribble butterflies and trees and bits of scripture, the pen gliding. I kept it simple, limiting my expectations to three, and where I had originally composed them in the negative, I reworded in the positive, that Adam might understand what I wanted.
No complaining talking became good, happy words; no screaming became say ‘okay’ to Mom and Dad. Admittedly, I had a hard time finding words I could be certain Adam would understand. Do a good job at school became my third expectation, and I made it clear that an ‘x’ in the box beside any one of the three meant losing a privilege…music, Diary of a Wimpy Kid books, math. And then, because something still niggled at me, something about the whole thing being about losing and marks against, I threw in an incentive. Five days with no ‘x’s’ meant Adam could receive his ultimate reward: a chance to play Angry Birds. I made a grid at the bottom of the board with each day of the week noted. Initially, the plan felt solid, like something he could understand. Our strategy reflected simple justice: Here are the rules. Here’s what you’ll lose if you mess up. Don’t mess up at all, and you win the big prize.
But simple justice made the streets of the Holy City run red with the blood of sacrifice. Simple justice brought the stench of death, splattering the linen robes of priests. God began with simple justice, that we might understand: no one can do a good enough job to earn the reward. The streets will run red, and still all hope will be lost.
Adam is a good, sweet boy, but the urgency of choice and freedom frustrated his best efforts. He could not tame his tongue with fear of loss as his motivation, and that fear only multiplied his frustration. By midweek, in one way or another, he had lost his chance of attaining the thing he longed for most. Every weekend went by without reward.
And considering all this, I thought Adam’s teacher might be right.
Because without hope, we all shatter. Fear imprisons us to failure, sentencing us before we begin to try. Faced with graceless justice, we all find our paralyzing fear breeding only joyless obedience. And joyless obedience is not relationship.
The way our plan worked, one hard day at the beginning of the week meant Adam had lost all chance of a reward. And the reward mattered more to him than all my short-term consequences. Even before this broken, hurting day, I hated this about our system. I did not enjoy motivating him with threats. So, I had tried offering Adam opportunities to earn things back, had tried offering second chances, but it seemed as though he barely understood the generosity of these allowances. Since He did not understand what I wanted, He did not understand either his exact error or the good behavior that had erased a just consequence.
And the thing that bothered me most is this: I need grace, real grace, like the air I breathe. I grab it up by the handfuls. I gasp to drink it in deep. Grace is the balm for all my scars, the hope past all my mistakes. It pained me to have no way to offer that grace to my son, no way that he could understand.
I say as much to Adam’s teacher as we stand there in the sun, and she pushes her hair behind her ear and says thoughtfully, “What if you made it not based on five days without an ‘x’ but on a certain number of good days? That way, if he has a bad day on Monday, he still has a chance to earn his reward if he gets it together on the other days.”
Instantly, I love her idea because it’s exactly the gift I live: Eternal hope, despite all my mistakes, because of Christ.
And this is where I lose track of who says what, because I like the idea so much that our thoughts spark rapid-fire, and we both start tossing out seeds, planting, sharpening and honing together, until I go home with a new plan—a plan to create a behavior economy that I know Adam will understand, one he’ll even enjoy. I sit at the computer and type out positives, things he can do to earn “great jobs,” the words printed enthusiastically under the picture of a smiling boy’s face in one-inch laminated squares. Great day at school +3, I type. Good, happy talking +1. I make a whole list, and underneath them all I type 15 great jobs = Angry Birds. And then on the right, I make a shorter list of debits. Hard day at school -3. Crying -1. Complaining talking -1. Riley stands behind my shoulder, reading. “I want to do it too,” she says instantly. Then she asks me if she can “get a great job” for helping me put magnets on the backs of the “great job” markers. “And I want to help you fold clothes today,” she adds, smiling.
At last, I arrive at a structured system that includes justice and love, mercy, and grace. One mistake means setback and consequence, but not the loss of all hope. This plan allows room for growing, for trying again, the loss removed in favor of victory.
The first week, Adam struggles. Without a taste of the reward, he can’t see the hope he now has, and he feels no incentive to work past his most difficult moments. And this, exactly this, is why YHWH pours out gifts of grace, that we might see the hope we have.
In these first days, blind frustration smacks Adam’s hands against his forehead, and he groans beneath the weight of training. So, that weekend, I look for every possible way to encourage him. Everything he does well, I notice and congratulate with a “great job,” until we count fifteen markers on the board below his name. I hoop and dance with him in the kitchen when he earns his first 45 minutes of Angry Birds. And Adam grins, and flaps, and giggles, hope sweet on his lips.
And the next day, we start again.
Adam checks the board first thing in the morning. “More,” he says.
“More what?” I ask, knowing, smiling because everyday I whisper the same to God. More grace. More, more, more grace. Hope soothes the stinging cracked and healing places. Hope lifts the weight of living. Hope shifts the focus, opens wide the heart.
“More Angry Birds,” he says, smiling, flapping, jumping, joy leaping in his words, lifting their sound.
“Yes. Fifteen great jobs and you can play more Angry Birds,” I say, pointing at the dry erase board. And Adam flaps and twirls and giggles again. And hope becomes the air he breathes.
And in the next week, Adam stops the complaining that had heretofore begun to monopolize his speech. His focus becomes the hope he has in things to come, things that are eventually coming, even if he makes mistakes. At last, Adam tastes the freedom that means things can go wrong and still the victory, the reward, awaits.
At school, he begins to learn the art of self discipline–how to hold his tongue, how to stop his hands in mid-air when habit throws them up, how to do the things he most dislikes with more patience. He happily takes on chores he used to cry over, spinning mid-step as he works. He learns to accept changes without the usual irritation. At home, he looks for new ways to earn our congratulations. And every so often, when he makes a misstep, he accepts correction without tears. One mistake no longer means the death of hope.
And the thing we least expected, the sweetest morsel of hope on our tongues, has been the things Adam says now, the words that fall freely and unprompted.
Just this morning, he stands in front of the dry erase board, placing a great job under his name after he empties the dishwasher. He counts, “22.214.171.124.5.6 great jobs. 15 minus 6 equals 9. 9 more great jobs and you can play Angry Birds! 30 minus 6 equals 24. 24 more great jobs and you can watch Tom and Jerry!”
“Yes, that’s right. Great job, Adam.” Tom and Jerry makes Adam lay in the floor laughing, but he can be a bit obsessed with it, so Kevin and I added it as another reward for effort. Since Adam knows that he will eventually get to watch, he doesn’t get frustrated about the limits we place on frequency. And as our strategy has met with success, we’ve added more opportunities for Adam to earn great jobs, and suddenly all the things we’re trying to teach him have become fun. Adam remains so solidly focused on the hope of his reward that he doesn’t mind the work in between.
“Today is Friday, September 28,” he continues, looking from the schedule back to me, and then he tells me what he’s excited to do today, whom he’d like to include in his plans. I snatch up the words like gems, savoring the sound. Just yesterday, Adam earned three great jobs for a great day at school, and this had been what he needed to reach thirty. When he got in the car, he leaned forward, telling me, “Great job, Adam!”
“Did you do a great job at school today?”
“Yes! You’re smart great job Adam. Angry Birds and then Tom and Jerry!”
“Yea!! That’s right. Are you excited?”
“Are you ready to go home?”
“Yes. Home first, then Angry Birds and Tom and Jerry.”
“That’s right. I just want to talk for just a few minutes, and then we’ll go home,” I said this gesturing toward my friend.
Three words, maybe four into our conversation and Adam leaned in between us, looking at his watch. “4:30 go home?”
And I share this conversation with you to share this: These are more words than my son has ever spoken freely, more words than he’s ever wanted to say, and every sweet, beautiful one of them has been born of hope.
Hope has birthed sweet fruit in me, too. Hope is the air I breathe, all grace.
And this is the hope I have:
Because of the cross, the story of my cross-shaped life has a chapter that tells a story far beyond the cutting pain, the river of blood, the consequences of so many selfish choices. Freedom means my mistake-riddled life has been swallowed up in victory. Know this: if any of it were really about me, I’d have lost all hope years and years ago, way back at the beginning of living.
But no more do I stand at the base of a crude, evil tree bathed in the stench of death. I stand at an empty tomb, forever washed in the fragrance of life.
And it seems to me, that if I just focus on all grace, this eternal hope, words of life and freedom will replace my complaint.
And the work won’t seem like such a heavy burden for all my dancing in grace.
And I’ll be more excited than ever about getting home.
Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! In his great mercy he has given us new birth into a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, and into an inheritance that can never perish, spoil or fade—kept in heaven for you, who through faith are shielded by God’s power until the coming of the salvation that is ready to be revealed in the last time (1 Peter 1:3-5).