Posted by: autismland | February 7, 2007

An Autism Parent’s Fable (#597)

There were five cassette tapes, one with a priceless interview with information for the book on the New Jersey/New York waterfront that Jim is finishing, and four with equally priceless audio documents of twentieth-century American culture: an interview with Muhammad Ali that Jim had taped from the radio; Paul Robeson and Billie Holiday songs; a snippet from an Al Smith speech; JFK, MLK, Jr., Malcolm X. Jim had compiled everything on the tapes from a friend’s record collection and other not readily revistable sources to play during his signature lecture course, Formation of Modern American Culture, and whether there were 400 or 35 undergraduates, the four tapes, their plastic sides fading, called for careful listening.
The four tapes had traveled with us in various boxes during our moves in the Midwest and around the Northeast. Because four-year-old Charlie had discovered how to pull out the tape—and how much tape a cassette contains—and how over-the-top annoyed were the expressions of his parents when this happened—Charlie, since then, has been able to detect any cassette tape in a room, no matter how hidden. (“I think he can smell them,” a former aide sighed.)

It did seem ironically fortunate that Charlie had become “entangled” (I suppose that is an appropriate word) in something—cassette tapes—that is a soon to be obsolete technology. At first we tried to teach Charlie to tolerate having a tape in the same room without him touching and tearing it apart, and these attempts worked for awhile at school or at home, and then gradually dwindled. It was certainly easy to discard every tape for CD’s and, while Jim and I would have preferred to teach Charlie not to destroy tapes, this seemed the best solution.

It did mean that Jim had to take extreme measures to hide those four tapes and then the fifth when it was loaned to him, and our move last summer into my in-laws’ house, and Jim’s moving into a new office, created numerous grounds for losing track of small items, five cassette tapes included. (After all, Jim hid them really well.)

Jim found the tapes on Tuesday night in a box in the closet in Charlie’s room, and loaded them into his briefcase.

At 4.30am, Charlie woke up groaning and, when I went to check on him, flopped onto the floor screaming. I tried to have him lie on a big pillow as he was aiming his forehead straight down; Jim brought him into our room and within seconds Charlie was laughing and rolling and kicking with impressive energy for 4.45am, and continued to do so till I got up at 6.30am. I was getting ready for work; I ran up the stairs for my coffee and found Charlie sitting on the couch, giggling.

Sitting in a vast web of plastic tape, still attached to five fading cassette cases.

I called Jim who seized the one cassette that he had borrowed and found a pencil. I could see the ends of the black tape, ripped and limp like the roots of a pulled-up weed. Charlie ran around the room, laughing and babbling: Any attempts to speak harshly/sternly/angrily to him do (I think) register, but in also only seem to catapult Charlie into more silliness (as in he kept trying to pull out more of what was left of the tape). A calm, composed, and matter-of-fact face and tone is the best thing, with consequences addressed later. And while I can’t say Jim and I exactly achieved that—-to where had those tapes traveled only to be wrecked in 45 seconds of glee?—-Charlie went to get his coat and hat and shoes and ran up and down the snowy grass until the bus came.

Charlie’s teacher emailed to say that he was a little extra-tired, and a little more hyper and silly than usual, but nothing out of the ordinary. Charlie often has delayed emotional reactions to things—such as doing what he was not supposed to do—-and from the time he ran off the bus, I stayed close by. We passed our usual afternoon: He played piano, went on a snow-and-ice walk, helped me with the laundry and changing the sheets on his bed, visited the library, carried half the groceries to the car. On the ride home, Charlie said “home bankett,” with great consternation a few times; after his shower, Charlie stood before me, looked me in the eye and said “squishy ball garbage.”

“You have it. Squishy ball Charlie, not garbage.” Taking away Charlie’s favorite things as “punishment” for wrecking the tapes is not the way to teach him the right thing to do: But praising him for treating other people’s things with as much care as he does his own is, and that will be a lesson to keep working on tomorrow, and for many days.

Just before 9pm the whine-moans started and Charlie told me, “Mommy stairs. Upp-stairs” and up I went. Jim came home and Charlie gave him a sunny smile, then asked me to “folda bankett” before snuggling his feet into it.

“The one tape works,” said Jim. “I was able to save it.”

I regretted the loss of the other four.

“How important is it?” Jim shrugged. “Like you said, everything on them is in my head.”

Indeed: What’s important—who’s important—-is right here with us. What got lost is ours to find again, or to realize how very little we need it, after all.



  1. Does it work at all to give him negative feedback?

  2. It does—of the “no, don’t do that” sort—-but to a limited extent when something has just happened. In the past, Charlie has often gotten more attention for his misdemeanors (so to speak) than for the things he did well, and he therefore often tends (right now, at least, to get very caught up in the excitement and (pardon the expression) headrush of “being bad.” And then the next day, the remorse sets in.

    So I do think negative feedback helps, but it takes him some time to process it!

  3. If cassette tapes weren’t on their way “out,” I would suggest perhaps buying a few blank ones and teaching Charlie that THOSE are the tapes for unwinding. But, as you said, how many cassette tapes is he likely to find in the world?

    (I only mention it because I was able to get a student of mine past a many-years-long cutting EVERYthing phase (hair, clothes, paper, watches, crayons…I mean EVERYthing) by giving her a basket of “shredding” and teaching her that if she needed to cut, she should get her shredding basket. We’re going on almost a year now with E. having a full head of hair for the first time in her school career.

    In any event, rather than teaching her what she *shouldn’t* do – she was able to learn an acceptable way of dealing with her very real need to cut things.)

    Of course, Charlie might not have E’s deep-seated *need* — he could just be funnin’ with mom and dad. 🙂

    Oh — and I sympathize deeply with the aide you mentioned. E. could find scissors three blocks away, I think.

  4. I can understand the frustration with Charlie destroying the tapes. Edith got a hold of the Beatles CD “Love” that I had purchased the other day and proceeded to rip the over off of it. (Being the obsessed person that I am, I purchased another copy much to my wife’s chagrin). She also likes to snap DVDs, CDs in half.

    But, the only thing she does that makes me upset is she will occasionly spit her medicine out.

  5. You know, I have to remind myself ALL THE TIME about what is most important in life. Upholstery chewed off furniture, plants pulled from their pots, curtains from their rods. … well, they are just things. BUT STILL! I’m surprised by how often I have to remind myself to act like a grown up when something needs repaired for the 10th time or thrown away altogether. But at the end of the day it is the most important thing that I tuck into bed and kiss on the forehead!

  6. Patrick does the exact same thing with video tapes. He still asks for “Articas” which is Aristocats even though he pulled it out over a year ago. He just doesn’t get it. You’d think it would be less annoying that it’s his videos he’s wrecking but somehow it isn’t.

    Negative feedback only works in a very limited way for Patrick. He doesn’t really understand all consequences either although he’s starting to and I’m so happy about that.

    I too, as christine said, have to remind myself to be a grown up when stuff gets ruined. We don’t have the money to replace a lot of the things that get destroyed but they are, as you said, just things. The little boy who gives me joy and kisses is more important.

  7. ahhhhhhh, memories. casette tapes gone, but toilet paper staying on the roll, definitely, worth teaching. Sincerely, Diane

  8. I’ve found that punishing my boys for misbehaving never works. Practicing over and over the right thing to do does. They are always so happy and peaceful after they’ve practiced, and more likely to do the right thing in the future. I’ve never done ABA, don’t even quite understand what it is, but it sounds like practicing. Is it?

  9. Never had the toilet paper unraveling but plenty of broken CDs and DVDs have gone into the garbage……Jennifer, I like your idea about teaching Charlie to handle tapes the right way and have been thinking about it.

    Hilda, ABA stands for Applied Behavior Analysis. It can involve practicing in that it can be used to have a child “practice” what it might be like to be in a specific situation and go through the steps……that’s a very minimal explanation, though. ABA is based on BF Skinner’s principles of behavioral science and has been a good method to teach Charlie numerous skills (including bike-riding and reading).

  10. Oh dear, I am completely in sympathy, as any researcher would be! How awful. When Sweet M was little she ruined a videotape of a talkshow that I had to do a content analysis of for a book, and I was hysterical. I couldn’t stop crying because I didn’t have a way of getting the show back, and I couldn’t chastise her because how could she have known it mattered. You and Jim continue to inspire by always seeming to know what really matters. Be well, even if audiotapeless!

  11. You guys are awesome parents! Just this morning K.C. ripped the pages out of one of Big Brother’s books. Big Brother was really angry and yelled at K.C. K.C. laughed and laughed which really got Big Brother annoyed.
    I think you guys did the right thing by Charlie. It’s so nice to be catching up on your blog, give Charlie a hug for us!

  12. T. hasn’t gotten hold of any cassette tapes, but has managed to destroy other media — his sister’s favorite CD got scratched so the last 2 tracks won’t play, and he’s rendered several VHS tapes unusable.

    C. tears pages in books. Usually the favorite book of one of her brothers. (We have many copies of One Fish, Two Fish, Red Fish, Blue Fish and Go, Dog. Go!

    Sam is shredding plastic bags. And the packaging for paper towels and toilet paper.

    Someone is removing toilet paper from the roll wholesale, but I don’t know who — one of the boys, but which one? (Does it matter?)

    Other than that, it’s mostly stuff like climbing unsafely (and I had to scold C. for attempting to scale the refrigerator yesterday, her daddy was impressed by the attempt) and running water and splashing it EVERYWHERE. Nothing a few towels and an ice pack or two won’t take care of, so far! (No trips to the ER for injury since C. and T. were 10 months old — she scratched his eye but good then. No trips to the ER for being sick for any of the kids for more than 2 years. Yay!)

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