Changing the Path

I often state that Robert exhibits many behaviors that seem similar to those associated with Obsessive Compulsive Disorder.  At the same time I am reluctant to say that Robert has OCD.  There are two reasons for my reluctance:

1. Robert has never been diagnosed with such disorder.

2. I associate Robert’s OCD like behaviors with Robert’s  efforts to establish structure of his world and rules that govern it.

Because Robert’s language was almost non-existent, and it still remains very limited, it could not be used as a tool allowing flexible manipulation of the environment.  The world without language is static.  The changes seemed dangerous to Robert as they indicated that the pillars supporting world’s  structure are missing. So Robert used to protest vehemently any change in the established order of the universe.  And that meant,switching from the winter jacket to the spring one, throwing old and /or broken things away, buying new clothes, moving the furniture to different rooms, and many other changes. 

There is no doubt in my mind that Robert’s “OCD like “behaviors are related to the limitations imposed on his cognitive functions by his almost non-existent language. It is also possible (just possible) that,vice versa, Robert’s  perception  of his environment as unchangeable became a factor that negatively impacted on Robert’s language.  

Based on a few observable behaviors I have tried  and I am still trying to reconstruct Robert’s model of his universe as it relates to his obsessiveness and his language.

Almost as soon as our family moved to Massachusetts we became members of Mass Audubon and visited a few Audubon’s parks, including our favorite, Moose Hill in Sharon.  Moose Hill has many trails which can be accessed either directly from the parking lot or after crossing one of the two streets passing through the park. Soon we discovered patterns of Robert’s relations with space.

1.We could always go to a new park and Robert was ready to go to any of the trails.  It was not surprising.  Since that was the first visit, there was no opportunity to establish rules that would manage Robert’s approach to the park. Every path had the same appeal to Robert.

2. When we parked our car close to the Vernal Pool trail at Moose Hill, Robert immediately followed the path that started a few steps down from the car.

3.When  we parked our car farther from the Vernal Pool trail, Robert turned toward the street exit from the parking and followed the Billing Loop.  That was fine as long as we didn’t want to leave the Billing Loop and enter the  Summit Trail.   Every attempt to do just that met with Robert’s  strongest protests. So strong  that we kept  giving up and continued on Billing Loop. Over and over.

We would probably never had a strength to oppose Robert if it had not been for Robert’s sister, Amanda.  She had enough of the Billing Loop.  She was ready for something new; she wanted to conquer Summit.   And she had a right to make a decision.  Too many times,  she gave up on what she wanted because her wishes were not compatible with Robert’s.  Since she  was the wiser one, she had to surrender her wants and needs because she understood all too well the family dynamics.  She did that when she was five, and seven, and nine.  And it was enough.

My husband and I decided to go on the Summit Trail.  We told Robert that many times.  He probably didn’t understand any way.  But repeating many times that there would be a change, that we would go on a different path was, nonetheless, very important.  This way we were introducing language as an agent of change.  Of course I didn’t realize at that time how important it was.  It just seemed a right thing to do even though it was not very logical to expect Robert to understand what we planned for that outing.  I also had a map of all the trails in Moose Hill.  Yet as soon as we got to the place where the Summit Trail began Robert protested and ran ahead along the Billing Loop.  We called him, he stopped and waited for us.  We waited for him.  He screamed a lot while  we kept calling him to come back.  He ran away from us, then he stopped and waited.  It lasted a while.  Amanda wanted to give up on the Summit Trail.  The price seemed too high.  Of course I expected the “extinction outburst” and was prepared for all that screaming and running, and flopping on the ground and … you name it.  At this point we couldn’t surrender.  We ran to Robert and holding him by both arms tried to walk with him back to the entrance to the Summit trail.  Not easy.  He used his legs to trip us. Each of us lost a balance a few times.  Robert was screaming and protesting.  He seemed to have eight limbs, wiggling out of our hold.  The good thing that the park was almost empty.  It would be much harder do the same thing in a crowded place with well-meaning people around.  This time there was only one woman walking by.  Still, I felt the  obligation to explain to her what was going on.  At some point my husband, Jan, decided to carry Robert alone.  Seemed easier and safer.  It wasn’t. There were reasons why Robert was called “little Houdini”.  He could wiggle out of any hold.  I showed Robert a map.  He looked curiously but didn’t change his resolve to continue on the Billing Loop. Again, we both held his arms and tried to walk with him. It seemed to take forever, but the distance we passed before Robert calmly decided that it was OK to walk on the Summit Trail was less than 40 yards.  Twenty yards on a Billing Loop and around 15 on the Summit.  During the next 2 or 3 miles of the walk Robert demonstrated how good hiker he was.  He didn’t complain even though we sort of got confused a few times and didn’t know which way to go.  Luckily we had a map with us.  We used it not only to point the place where we were to Robert but to find our way back to our car.   We never had the same problem again.  We let either Amanda or Robert decide which path they wanted to take. Sometimes when we get to the place the trail divides we ask Robert which way he wants to go next.  He points and says “This way”.  Not much more. If he chooses the same path more than two times, I tell him that now it is my turn to choose and we are going on a different trail so Robert doesn’t get used to just one way.

This episode helped me later deal with many other OCD-like behaviors.  Of course, I do choose my battles.  And of course, since Robert is now bigger  and stronger I have to apply different methods.  I cannot anymore  pick him up and carry him.

But I learned that

1. It is important to use words even when I am not sure if Robert understands them.  He will eventually make a connection between words and events.  Specially when those events seem as dramatic to him as they were to us.

2.You cannot allow a child to be all the time in control because you are afraid of the consequences of challenging his will.

3.What I considered “his will” was not really that but a mental prison Robert was in. I didn’t break Robert’s will by forcing him to go on a different path, but liberated him from his cell.

4.I found out how helpful reading maps can be for a child like Robert.  Later, I understood that reading maps can help to develop reading comprehension.

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