Monday, December 14, 2015

Release The Kraken

This is Conor when you deny a trip to the bank.
I'm thinking of making it our Christmas card.
This summer, I taught Conor about cashing checks at the bank, and oh my God, it’s like I released the Kraken. Rapidly, it became this seething ball of obsession and wanting and churning and angst and gnashing of teeth. 

At one point, I kid you not, he practically foamed at the mouth, demanding to go to the bank once or twice a day for increasingly bigger amounts of money. 

I blame myself. I don’t know what I was thinking. I should have known better. But it was the end of the summer, we were exhausted from trying to manage everything.

It all began with my brother-in-law and his wife giving Conor a wallet for his birthday last February. 
A wallet purchased from the bestest, most awesomest store on the planet, The Black Dog Store

Looks so innocuous, doesn't it?

It made me a little bit nervous, since Conor's so into money, but he delighted in putting a few dollars in it and paying for his root beer here, some french fries there, an ice cream cone or two. Then he started wanting more and more money, for buying baking mixes and pottery to paint, for purchases on his outings and bowling. Next thing you know, we're running to the ATM every day, and Conor wants to accompany us to the machine to punch in the numbers. It was all making me quite uncomfortable as he was becoming more and more Machiavellian about the whole thing. 

Plus, Conor yells out the PIN number as we’re typing it in, so there’s that. 

So, you know, life skill. I decide I’ll take Conor to the bank once a week to cash a check for what we use for his needs anyway. This way, in addition to keeping a little bit of privacy with our PIN, he’ll learn about budgeting, practice some social skills, understand the value of money, and what not. Teachable moments, right? That’s what this parenting thing is all about, I’ve been told. (I kind of thought it was about having a little minion to fetch your adult beverage of choice during the football game? But evidently it’s about this teaching thing.) 

Turns out, Conor thought the bank was just a big ol’ pile of free money for him to spend on this, that, and the other thing. Mostly he wants ceiling fans, sometimes French fries, perhaps the grocery store each day, birthday gifts for random people, often to throw a party. (I’m not kidding, he’s like a frat guy wanting a party every weekend with 50 friends. It’s a problem. He calls them “Activity Day Fests” like they do at school. He creates the menu, picks the venue, chooses a date, outlines the activities--swimming, outdoor movie presentation, corn hole--and then chooses who he wants to invite. He’s the Julie McCoy on our little Love Boat here.

I felt horrible, like I had put us back at where we were before he went on Kennedy Krieger Institute’s NeuroBehavioral Unit (NBU). This great idea of mine set off weeks of behavioral upsets, and he came pretty close to having a tantrum many times. See, Conor’s obsessed with buying things, and he was placed on a strict budget by the NBU behavioral staff before his discharge. It’s been incredibly helpful and effective, but also seriously difficult.

Conor’s constant desire to acquire items of obsession—baking mixes, pottery, puzzles, t-shirts, mugs--is like a candle burning inside of him for every waking moment. Money doesn’t just burn a hole in his pocket. It practically sets him on fire. So we manage his access to it very carefully. We try to balance what he needs to be able to operate as independently as possible with making sure you don’t turn the heat up too high on that fire. It would burn us all down. Truly.

Now, however, he’s moved beyond buying things, to being obsessed with the buying. It’s the transaction of the cash. If you’re craving fries at Five Guys, my teen is right there at your shoulder offering to hand your money over for you, counting it out carefully and slowly. If you need tampons from the grocery store, Conor’s your guy, ladies. He’ll help you out. Unlike most guys, he’s not skeeved out by the mere thought of you menstruating. Not if it means buying something.

Don’t worry, dear stranger, that teen hovering at your shoulder doesn’t want to steal your wad of cash. He just wants to spend it for you. He’s very generous with other people’s money.

For the most part, he prefers cash--fives, tens, and twenties. (Singles quickly get handed back to me. 
Singles are for chumps, evidently.) But he will swipe your credit card for you if push comes to shove. You know, if he has to he’ll use a credit card. 

It's true, we've had some success with the wallet obsession. He's demonstrated that he can communicate effectively (most of the time) to purchase the item he wants, can count out the appropriate amount of money, and knows when he's supposed to receive change. These are important skills for him to learn, and I'm not above using money to motivate him for these skills.

(Yeah, yeah, we're using money to motivate him to learn how to use money. The little money-grubber. The irony is not lost on me.)

My son buys french fries
independently at Five Guys.
We spend a LOT of money
on french fries. I'm not sure
which is more motivating--money or

If my teen with autism doesn’t have a tantrum for a week, I’m willing to give him a little more coin. It is what it is. Being more flexible and holding himself together emotionally and behaviorally is a lesson my teen with autism needs to learn. If an extra $1.50 in his pocket motivates him to not have a tantrum, so be it.

But utilizing Conor’s obsessive interests can sometimes backfire if you don’t prepare carefully. It’s very vogue right now in the autism community to regard obsessions as “passions” and to use them in crafting vocational opportunities and to soothe anxieties and behavioral upsets. On the surface, it sounds like a great idea, a positive one. And it can be. After all, if an individual “passionately” loves organizing items, they’ll be much happier and more compliant re-shelving library books by their Dewey decimal number rather than planting flowers in someone’s garden or doing janitorial work. And vice versa.

And if they need access to a preferred item they’re obsessed with because their sensory system is on overload, I completely get that. Like a salve that soothes a burn, indulging in an obsession can be helpful to some.

But with my son’s obsessions, it feels more like scratching a mosquito bite than applying a soothing ointment on a burn. Sure, it feels good at the time, and it can satisfy his itch at the moment. But then the bite just gets itchier and itchier and itchier, and you don’t stop him from scratching it more and more and more, and the next thing you know--it’s infected. And painful and swollen and green, with pus boiling out of it.

You get the picture. It gets ugly. It erupts.

We worked through it. We’ve learned. Once a week now, he and I sit down at our paint-spattered wooden kitchen table and put together a budget for the week. Day-by-day, Conor and I go through the calendar and look at what he’s got planned for that week—pizza night, athletic trainer, riding the light rail, Five Guys for fries, ice cream—and add it all up. I write a check for cash, and we go to the bank.

Then we sit back down at the same kitchen table and divvy up the cash, labeling each amount with its intended purpose. There are still kinks to be worked out. Currently, he’s struggling with his obsession for specific denominations, which drives him to withdraw more money than he needs. He loves $10 bills, so even though he’ll only spend $4 on ice cream once a week, he wants to withdraw $10. I’d like him to get the $4 out. He wants to use a $10 bill and “hand the change back.” 

My mistake wasn’t the idea of helping Conor to learn about budgeting and using the bank to accomplish the things he wants to do. My mistake was not thinking ahead, not thinking it through, not placing the appropriate parameters and boundaries for him so that he can successfully manage his obsessive interest. Conor needs those external boundaries to manage his obsessions because he simply cannot do it internally.

It’s a process. A negotiation. It’s getting easier, little by little, but I can’t say it’s perfect. I think we’ll be doing this dance for a very long time. 

For the love of money