One of the most upsetting and isolating behaviours by my autistic son, was when he refused to let me talk to anyone except him. This went on in varying degrees, for over six months. It severely affected my relationship with my husband: Any time I wanted to talk to him, we had to sneak off to a different room and I’d whisper my message very quickly, before my son discovered us conversing. Since I was “permitted” to talk directly to my son, I tried to use this loop-hole to actually talk to my husband – directing my body language and tone at my son but using words for my husband. It fooled my son for maybe a day.
Before I expand on how much this affected us and how we eventually resolved it, I should explain what my son would actually do when I spoke. He would scream and cry for starters, so even if I persisted in trying to talk, no one could hear me. He would hit my mouth if he could get close enough. If I refused to stop talking he would bite me too – only me, he wouldn’t go to bite the person I was talking to. His tantrum would quickly escalate, so that it would take a lot of time and physically restraining him to get him to calm down. Even when he was somewhat calmed, his anxiety levels would stay high for hours, whereby the smallest thing could set him off again (such as someone touching one of his lined-up cars).
Refusing to let me talk started in the car, but expanded over time so I wasn’t allowed to talk to people in my own home, in their homes, or out and about – such as at his kindergarten. When I’d visit my mother with him, I had to whisper to her so he wouldn’t notice, or I’d resort to writing notes instead of speaking so I wouldn’t set him off. At kindergarten I was in constant fear that an adult would try to talk to me – whether another parent or a teacher. As long as I didn’t reply it would be fine, but if I attempted an answer (to avoid appearing horribly rude), the meltdown would start. I started carrying around a note in my bag so I could explain to people why I couldn’t talk, without having to tell them verbally.
My son let me talk to other children at the kindergarten though, which was an unusual exception, with no obvious explanation. And as you’ll see at the end of this post, it would be part of the eventual overcoming of the behaviour.
When therapists would visit us at home for my son’s sessions (the speech therapist, occupational therapist, or educational psychologist), I couldn’t reply to their questions and give them feedback on how things were going, without getting hit and bitten. Many times I was asked by various therapists, what methods had I used to try to stop his reactions. I told them I’d tried everything – from talking through the tantrums (ignoring them), to methods of disciplining my son, to physical efforts of calm him, everything I could imagine, and everything they’d suggested. It was affecting the therapy sessions so much that one day his speech therapist wanted to see what would happen if we just kept talking and ignored his tantrums. I warned her how bad it would get, but she either didn’t believe me or wanted to see it for herself, and so we tried it.
It was horrendous. My son screamed and cried, without breaks except to catch his breath. He turned tables and toys over, destroying what ever he could get his hands on. He pulled at my dress when I stood up so he couldn’t reach my face, biting it and almost pulling it off me. I did what she told me and refused to meet his eyes, or make efforts to calm him. We kept turning away from him and continued talking, though neither of us could hear much at all of what the other said. He was deeply distraught, I was upset and near tears, even she was exhausted, by the time she agreed it wasn’t going to work about half an hour later.
To varying extremes, this behaviour continued from the age of three, to the age of four, and then we cracked it without knowing it was happening. My second son was born. I was so worried about how I was meant to be able to talk to my new child when my older one would tantrum each time I tried to talk to other people. But at our first outing from home as a family in the car, I went to speak to my new son in his carseat, and my older son let me. Wow. I pushed further, I tried to talk to my husband, and he let me do that too. Double wow.
Over the next few weeks my son’s tolerance for me talking to people other than himself, expanded, until it wasn’t an issue ruining my life anymore. It still pops up now and then – he’ll get anxious sometimes and try to order me by saying “no talking”. But we know where it will lead if we let him get into that habit again, and we come down hard and clear at those times that he cannot have control over other people in that way. It’s easier now to make him understand that this is not something he can dictate – his comprehension has come a long way over the past year. As he takes more control over his autism and his world, he seems to need to take less control over me. I no longer have to suffer in silence.