Something terrible happened to my son on Saturday. He lost his sister.
Oh, don't worry – she's fine. And this isn't a case of David wandering off and getting lost from his sister, either. No, this is a case of David, using his words (yay!) in a way that could hurt someone (not so yay) and discovering there are consequences.
From the very first days of David's autism diagnosis, David's father and I were united and firm in the belief that autism doesn't give David the right to be a jerk to anyone. That doesn't mean that we don't have to accommodate him sometimes. It doesn't mean we don't have to educate people sometimes. Mostly, it means it might take a few repetitions and possibly even physical removal from the scene for David to understand that his words or behavior were inappropriate.
And that's what happened on Saturday.
He and Anna were fighting off and on all day – typical sibling stuff that I ride herd on and frequently throw my hands up in the air over – when David escalated it to a new level.
"You're not my sister anymore!" he shouted at Anna. Not once, not twice, but three times.
I walked over and immediately intervened. I got down on eye level with him so he knew I was serious.
"David, is that really what you want? You don't want to have Anna as your sister anymore?"
He folded his arms, tucked in his chin and refused to answer me, so I tried another tack.
"How would you feel if Anna said she didn't want you as a brother?"
And I want to point out here, that as many times as they've fought, as many times as her brother has annoyed her to the point of turning her into a screaming, screeching, pillow-throwing harpy, she has never, not ever, not once told him that she didn't want him as her brother. Ever.
"I don't know," he finally answered me.
"You don't know how you'd feel? Or you don't know what to say to me?"
"I don't know," he repeated, punching the couch next to him. Okay, so that wasn't working, either. He needed to learn that words can be hurtful when thrown that way, but I was using too many words or the wrong words for his overloaded brain to really get that message. That's when I decided to do something drastic.
"Okay, David," I said. "If you don't want Anna to be your sister anymore, that's fine. Anna won't be your sister today."
Two heads snapped up at that one.
"Huh?" Anna said.
"No!" David was emphatic - and more than a little worried, now.
I turned to Anna. "Anna, just for today, I want you to treat David like he's someone you barely know. Don't engage him. Don't talk to him unless he asks you a direct question, and then be polite but don't continue the conversation. In other words, treat him like a stranger instead of a brother."
"No!" David was really not happy with that one at all.
"Just for today, David," I reassured. "It's nearly bedtime, so really, it's only for tonight. And maybe, if you can think hard about your words before you say them, you can earn your sister back and she can be your sister again tomorrow."
What happened next was epic. He never worked so hard to engage another human being in his life. Anna did exactly as I asked, not ignoring him, but not treating him with anything more than a cordial indifference, and he was miserable. I mean really, really miserable. So much so that he actually crawled on my lap and asked me to hold him because he felt so bad.
We finally decided we were camping out in the living room that night, and I set up the air mattress and we all watched a movie together, punctuated all the way through by David trying to tell Anna how much he loved her and that he wanted her to be his sister. She very nearly gave in, but I kept reassuring him on her behalf that she loved him, but she wasn't his sister today and he'd have to wait until tomorrow for her to talk to him like a brother.
I got up at some point mid-movie and used the restroom, and when I got back, he had crawled over to her side of the air mattress and wrapped his arms around her, refusing to let go. She was stroking his head and looked up at me as if to say "Come on, Mom….."
"Okay," I relented. "David, if you think you can remember to think about your words before you say them, I think Anna can be your sister again."
"I'm always your sister," she reassured him. "But that was a mean thing to say."
"I'm sorry!" His eyes welled up with tears. "I love you. You're my sister. You're my sister, Anna."
He fell asleep with his head on her shoulder and she finally begged me to help her move him so she could feel her arm again. Then we both talked about how hard that was to do. David went exactly ninety minutes without a sister, and I think it was worse for us than for him.
But yesterday, we all went to the lake, and it was a perfect summer day, and David had a sister that he loved and played with and laughed with, and we all came home tired and slightly sunburned and collapsed on the couch in a heap.
And my son learned that words can hurt, and sometimes the one they hurt most is the one who used them carelessly.
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