Wednesday, October 14, 2009

What's a Picture Worth?

Ben was the easiest baby born to human parents. He was docile, quiet (too quiet, really), and content to sit in one spot for hours, staring blankly at whatever parade of activity passed in front of him. He didn't roll over, as most infants eventually do, until he was six months old. He didn't crawl until he was almost one; he didn't walk for another five months after that. Did I worry? No. He was just moving at his own pace, I figured. He was meeting the developmental milestones--just not as quickly as other kids do. But he was my fourth child. He got lots of parental and sibling attention. I supposed that he just didn't see much need to change things up too quickly.

But once he got up and walked, my docile, quiet baby vanished and every waking, toddling moment was soon laced with some form of chaos: he pulled cereal boxes from the pantry to scatter millions of little oat circles across the kitchen floor; he dumped cups full of water or other accessible liquids (notably, my Diet Coke) into lakes and oceans on the carpet; he removed his poopy diapers to create fresco artwork on the walls and floor; he emptied full bottles of shampoo or dish soap onto beds or down the bathtub drain. Did I worry? No. I figured he was just an active kid. Maybe he was making up for lost time.

He was four when I sent him to preschool. He couldn't sit still, couldn't interact with other children in appropriate ways, couldn't control himself from hitting, kicking, or spitting on others, and often ran out of the classroom either into the hallway or else out the door into the parking lot when he spotted an opportunity (little jail breaker!). Did I worry? No. I figured he had ADHD, and took him to the doctor for a prescription that actually helped a lot.

I didn't worry when he started kindergarten, either, and couldn't tolerate sharing a table with other children. He never played with other kids on the playground. He often still pinched, pushed, and hit his classmates, but I figured that his meds needed some adjusting.

And then came Picture Day, which happened first thing in the morning for the kindergarten class. By 9:00 a.m., his whole class had smiled and said "cheese" for the strange guy with the rubber chicken. By 9:30, the school principal called me to say that Ben's behavior had escalated to a point where they could no longer keep him in school. I picked him up, drove him home, and finally started to worry--particularly after I began to cry and Ben punched me and said, "You're a big crybaby. You're a stupid crybaby!"

We've come a long way since Picture Day last year. With a diagnosis and a treatment plan in place, Ben's making some slow but certain progress. So when yesterday--Picture Day--rolled around again, I thought for just a moment about sending a note to his teacher to warn her that Ben might have a tough day. And then I changed my mind. It seemed like he was having a good morning, so I decided not to worry about it after all. Still, I wasn't entirely surprised when the principal called me at lunch time to report that Ben was sitting there in his office with him, after spending lunch spitting on, kicking, and pushing other children.

I thought a lot last night about what Picture Day means to an autistic child, and realized that it must almost feel like a horrid personal violation to him. Ben doesn't make eye contact with anyone--not even me, and I'm his closest connection in the world. Imagine if every time you were asked to look someone in the eye, your brain began shooting off electrons in a frenzy that would rival the finale of a 4th of July fireworks show. I think that's what it's like for Ben when he's asked to make interpersonal connections. Yet on Picture Day, he's put on a stool--the center of attention--and commanded to look up, look here, smile, and say magical, grin-inducing words. His over-firing brain can't have much left by the time that ordeal is over. So of course, Picture Day is almost impossibly hard for him to survive without some level of emotional overload.

Is it worth it? Do I continue to force him through that level of over-stimulation every single year for the rest of his educational career? I love his school pictures, and I cherish the memories that each picture inspires. But what about him? I think I have to remember that on Picture Day, Ben will always need a chance to regain some kind of balance and quiet in his own mind once the photo has been taken.

The fact is, Ben needs me to worry a little more about Picture Day.


  1. And who could forget the infamous "babm hawk!" (I have no idea how to spell that!).

    He is so adorably photogenic it would be a shame to stop pictures altogether, but perhaps helpful if he can somehow have quiet time afterwards.

  2. I have plans to cover the topic of conversation with Ben--maybe next time unless he says or does something so interesting that I have to blog that first! Babm-hawk will be part of that. And yes--I realized yesterday that he needs a quiet space for a while, and probably some puzzles to work on, when picture day comes again.

  3. How about if you kept him home that day and just took him in the afternoon when it is quieter and slower for his pictures. Or take him when his class goes in the morning, but then take him home afterwards? Maybe make it a Mom and Ben day based on behaving correctly while having his picture taken. Just a thought! You are awesome! love you.

  4. I certainly wouldn't take him through that trauma next year, unless he progresses to the point where you can talk to him about it and get his permission. Take your own pictures of him when he is agreeable. The one that accompanies your blog is wonderful.

  5. I think your ideas and these others are excellent. How about a digital camera for Ben. I like the one with LED screens on both sides. It might be interesting to see what he would capture. Our thoughts and prayers are with you.

  6. Treena, great minds think alike! I had considered the idea of bringing Ben home again after pictures; I mistakenly hoped that he'd made enough progress since last year that I wouldn't have to. Actually, he HAS made progress; he had a rough time after pictures, but no so much that he had to come home. He just had to be separated from his peers for a while, and then he didn't go to recess with the other kids in the afternoon. He just stayed inside with his teacher and got some quiet time. Thank you for your ideas. I love you too!

    Aunt Starr, getting his permission is a great idea. It would help prepare him, too, for what is about to come, and that's always a good thing for him. The photo I have on the blog is the one that got him sent home last year! See what I mean about loving the pictures?

    Norris, GREAT idea. Claire Claunch also noticed recently that Ben really loves working with cameras and she's been letting him come down and take some photos with her. I think it's a "safe" way for him to connect with the world while maintaining some distance at the same time. A digital camera for Christmas might be a brilliant gift for him. Thank you for the idea!