| Family Diary |

Meltdown: Chapter 5

“My son is autistic.” I heard the defensiveness in my voice, but also the plea. “Please don’t do anything, or say anything until I get there”



everet Leibenson? I’m calling from the Israeli police. Your son—”

“Is Chezky okay?” I cut him off. “Where is he?” Was I running to the local precinct? What had Chezky done this time?

“I’m here on Rashi street. Your son apparently has been shoplifting many times from the local makolet located on this street. I need you to come down here immediately.”

“My son is autistic.” I heard the defensiveness in my voice, but also the plea. “Please don’t do anything, or say anything until I get there.”

Slamming down the phone, I raced the few blocks to the makolet, right around the corner from Chezky’s school.

There are times when looking at Chezky, an outsider cannot tell anything is off. He’s extremely good-looking, with fine features, blond hair, blue eyes. The type of kid you’d think, Wow. Pooh pooh pooh. (You find this attribute often with ASD; I like to think it’s Hashem cushioning the nisayon with this cake frosting.) And this seemingly run-of-the-mill, kid-next-door appearance led most strangers to assume that all was A-Okay in his head as well.

Like the bus driver who once yelled at Chezky for taking too long with his change.

“You can’t talk to me like that,” Chezky had retorted without batting an eyelash. “I’m autistic, and you could get arrested!”

Was Chezky now about to be arrested??

Barging into the store, I took stock of the scene. I saw that this was one of those times when even a stranger could tell something was off. Chezky was clearly overstressed, struggling to maintain control, rocking and muttering to himself, his eyes darting from the police officer guarding him to the proprietor nervously pacing. Seeing me come in the door, Chezky leaped up, almost causing the officer to reflexively restrain him.

I grabbed his hand, squeezed, and turned to both men. “I’m sorry for the disturbance here,” I said, struggling to keep my voice calm, “but my son is autistic. Here’s his handicap card.” I carry it always in my phone, in one of the case’s card slots, as my imagination has envisioned scenes like this one many a time.

“I’m so sorry,” the store owner jumped in. “I would never have contacted the authorities if I’d known. I thought—”

Geveret,” the officer cut him off and eyed me seriously. “Your son has been caught on store surveillance cameras serval times over the last few weeks, shoplifting.”

“Yeah, well he has a problem with delayed gratification.” Amazing at what Hebrew words have become part of my lexicon. “And while he knows it’s wrong, he can’t help himself from taking something.”

It wasn’t the first time Chezky had taken something he wanted badly. At home, we simply did not keep cash around. At. All.

It definitely made for frustrations in daily life. (Think, MA… I need 20 shekels for the class party!) Yet experience had shown us that Chezky literally couldn’t help himself.

Once I put an envelope with 200 shekels cash in my dresser to pay the cleaning lady that morning. Ten minutes later the envelope was gone. I immediately accused Chezky. (Sorry, dan l’chaf zechus is not my strong point in these situations.) Chezky vehemently denied it — and he can lie so convincingly — staring straight into my eyes as he spoke. He started “helping” me find the envelope, moving my dresser, looking behind, all the while coming up with ideas of what could possibly have happened to the envelope. I knew he had taken it, but could I prove it? No. And if I pushed it, well, suffice it to say, his meltdown would push me back so fast. I simply hadn’t the time to deal with it at that hour of the morning.

It was ridiculous, but even when knowing how difficult these “temptations” were for Chezky, I’d still feel personally hurt that he’d take my things and then lie to my face. Why did he want to hurt me like that? Knowing logically that this wasn’t his intention didn’t stop my emotions and feelings.

So we learned quickly not to keep cash around… and to lock the fridge and freezer… and to keep treats in the household safe… and to buy his siblings safe boxes for their special items… and a host of other precautions that had become “normal” in our household. Now, I was discovering, Chezky obviously had found other sources.

This officer wasn’t backing down so fast. Taking the handicap card from my (yes, shaking) hand, he perused it carefully before looking back at Chezky. With me at his side, Chezky’s body language was regulated again, and I couldn’t blame the policeman; he did look perfectly normal.

What now? How could I convince him?

Just then one of the rebbeim from Chezky’s school walked into the makolet. He understood the incident in a flash and approached the officer.

“This boy learns in the special-ed cheder around the corner,” he offered. “I’m sure if there’s any issue, his teacher and principal would like to help out.”

Tov, tov,”  the officer conceded defeat. “But you have to take care of this. I’m not going to waste my time coming in every week if you can’t control your son.”

Control, control. That magic word. Could I control my son? The answer fluctuated. Yes, no, maybe, sometimes. But as he was approaching his 14th birthday, he was growing too big. How much longer would I be able to tackle him physically when his meltdowns spiraled? My husband had already switched to working remotely; now he was home and available in case I needed a stronger pair of hands. Still, the bulk of controlling Chezky was on me.

Control is a funny word to use on a teenager. Or even on younger kids. Our goal as parents is to teach kids how to control themselves. But self-regulation and intractable emotions are key conflicts in ASD behavior.

There were times when Chezky would present completely normal behavior and above-bright intelligence, winning chess games, quoting encyclopedia facts at the zoo, or sketching intricate diagrams of car motors and parts.

He’d be loving, wanting to snuggle with me, telling stories while imitating dozens of voices, and he had a huge repertoire of corny jokes.  At such times, I would think that maybe… maybe… he was so smart… if only I could find the right way to explain, he’d finally get it, finally understand how he needed to behave.

And then, boom, out of the clear blue, with no clouds in the forecast, the sky would fall in — like it did today.

As I stood there, facing the stern-faced police officer, I wanted to concede defeat. No, I can’t always control my son. And as he was getting older, there was the niggling fear that this may be a losing battle on my part. But as his mother, what other choice did I have, but to keep trying?


(Originally featured in Family First, Issue 842)

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