T has been with us for about 6 months. He is 10 years old and is diagnosed with ASD though it seems quite mild. Some of his symptoms that are attributed to ASD could also be just down to the fact that T is a 10 year old boy. In general he is a very happy lad but one who has moments of anxiety and has some problems dealing with his emotions. Because of his condition he does get fixated on things so he has a strong passion for cars and certain movies and TV programmes and at the moment he has a sometimes unhealthy obsession with Loom Bands (tiny little elastic bands that the kids make into bracelets).
I am married with three children, one at home, one at University and one living just down the road, and I am the main carer as my wife has a full time job as an Assistant Principal at a Sixth Form College.
Friday 30th January – Friday 6th February
It has been one of those weeks where you find yourself questioning what you are doing working as a foster carer (a complete end to the normal quiet household you once had), whether you are up to the job that you are doing or if you are, indeed, helping the young person with you at all. For us it is mainly because he seems so angry and therefore unhappy, well we assume he is because he does not tell us directly, but he can’t be enjoying himself if he is so cross all the time, can he? And my God has he been cross this week. I think this is a culmination of several weeks of difficulties since Christmas and us coming to the decision that something needs to be done and putting our foot down. This has not gone down too well, the restating of boundaries, but it has been needed. So let’s recap.
Since Christmas it seems that we have gone right back to where we were a year ago. When T arrived his emotional state was very vulnerable and the slightest crisis would end in a major tantrum. This was the time when we were finding out about him and trying to get a hold of how to deal with him and it was tough but because we were very new and full of enthusiasm and patience we were able to manage it. But now we are having them all over again, and often more than one a day, where he gets very cross and is rude before storming off to his room while making as much disruptive noise as possible. And it is not that we can’t manage it but that we are confused that we seem to have gone backwards and we don’t know why. Is he trying to deliberately break this arrangement down because that is what happened at home? Or are we making mistakes? We are beginning to question ourselves and though there is no harm in looking at our own behaviour it is not healthy to be too critical.
He does not swear yet but that can’t be far away and he is quite insulting, recently saying to me that he would come over and ‘give me a slap in a minute’ and though he is only 10 at the moment he is already quite a big lad and will possibly be the size of me by the time he is in his mid to late teens. So it is a worry because if this turns into real aggression then we could be in trouble. And he needs to be under control before he goes to Secondary school in just over 7 months because we know that this kind of behaviour will not be accepted in mainstream school. It feels like an important time for him and us and we want to do what’s best.
Here’s an example from this week. On Saturday I was getting ready for breakfast and I asked T what he would like. I said there was bacon and eggs and he said he would like a bacon sandwich. I said fine and so started cooking but realised there were only 5 pieces of bacon and there were 3 of us eating. On hearing this he stated that it was not enough bacon for him and that he wanted more. I told him that we would all have the same and that my wife and I were having egg as well, would he like one?
‘Eggs are disgusting’ he said even though he always has them. Go figure! He was not happy and started moaning which turned into shouting and insulting me and finally into a full blown tantrum, and all because there was not enough bacon. He ended up not having anything at all until lunch, his choice, but it meant a whole morning of complaints and further tantrums with things like ‘Why don’t you go out and buy more for me?’ He does hold on to an issue for a long time. It seems a bit petty now but at the time it was quite intense and it did not endear him to us because it seemed so selfish. Basically he wanted more than everyone else.
So after this incident we needed to put in a new sanction because one thing we have learnt is that sanctions usually work with T. We already have in place that if he starts a tantrum then we warn him and if he continues then he loses his electric toys for 24 hours. That one has worked most of the time. Now we have told him that if he is speaking rudely to anyone in our house he will get a warning and then if he continues he will lose his treat after dinner. And a note here on treats because we don’t want people thinking that we all have treats while he watches with a tear in his eye, as a family we don’t have pudding or anything like that so these treats are just for him and they consist of the huge amounts of sweets and chocolate that are given to T at Christmas which we then distribute slowly so that he does not have too much at once. There is enough for a treat every day until Easter where I’m sure he will get just as much again.
Anyway back to the story and he managed to lose both his pudding and his electronics and so began a week where this was a regular occurrence every day. It was not nice waking up, knowing that the morning would be like this and so reaching the end of our tether I arranged a meeting with my supervising social worker. And boy did I need it.
And what a useful meeting it turned out to be; one that reminded me of why I chose to do this with Families Fostering in the first place. The support was brilliant and immediately available. My supervising social worker was able to unpick all the behaviour and give suggested reasons for it. For example, many of the problems we have come around food and so I was asked what dinner time was like in terms of poor behaviour and tantrums. I answered saying it was OK and was asked how food was chosen for dinner and I said that I chose it, cooked it and then served it up. My social worker told me that if I consider that choice can cause high anxiety in kids with Autism, which can mean that their reactions can seem over the top, then that would explain why dinner time was fine. T had no choice, this is what is for dinner and that is that. For breakfast there is a choice and also for lunch and so if you imagine that having a choice can create anxiety then it becomes possible to recognise his behaviour more as a result of his condition and not him being selfish or unkind. So any other thing that does not go right, like not getting enough bacon for example, comes out in a more stressed way. I am not sure he even understands what he is doing himself but it made sense to me. And that is not to say that bad behaviour is accepted or tolerated, we are still dealing with it, it’s just that it is easier for me to understand him and not see him as ungrateful and selfish but as someone needing help and guidance even with basic things like eating meals. With my own kids choice was a natural way of developing independence but with T it is going to be a much longer journey for him to be considered independent.
Another thing we spoke about was his tantrums and abusive language. This is something else we find difficult to understand in my family but my social worker pointed out that what if he had grown up in a verbally aggressive household. I know T and his Mum argued a lot, but what if this is the behaviour that he connects with love. If things came to a verbally abusive peak with Mum which culminated in tears and a tantrum and then love and hugs and treats (to make up) then this could be what he is after in our house. And one of the traits in our house is that we don’t shout back, or very rarely, and so if T is looking for a verbal outburst to bring the tension to an end and we don’t give it then he will be confused and will keep pushing until he gets it or, as is the case in our house, until he takes it too far and loses his electrics or dinner treat. It’s almost as if losing his treats is a comfort because he then knows he has gone too far but also that he can’t lose anything else.
There was, of course, a lot more that we talked about but the thing I am getting at is that I could not have done this on my own. I needed my social worker to direct me to where I needed to look. Fostering is a really long and hard journey and couple that with a condition like Autism and the complications can be endless. It was good to hear that we are going about it in the correct fashion. Sanctions are working and for T they are essential in his development just as they are essential for our wellbeing. But it was good to be guided down a calmer and more understanding road.