November 16, 2012

To stim, or not to stim?

It is a bit of family lore than one can always tell Hart and Jeff apart in photos: Jeff is the one holding a toy car. In his pre-school years, he had a brief flirtation with sticks, then Post-It notes, but the object of his attention for the past fifteen years has been cars. For those of you who have seen videos of Jeff speed skating, empty-handed, let me assure you that the cars are under my watchful eye in the bleachers. At competitions, other skaters play with iPads or GameBoys between races, but Jeff stims on his cars. At Jeff's junior prom, he posed for a photo underneath the requisite trellis, smiling broadly with his date . . . a handled shopping bag full of toy cars. (Note to professional photographer: Never thought to ask him to set the bag down for a moment, huh?)

At best, I am ambivalent about the cars. Mostly, I hate them. I hate how they have become a glaring public signal that my son, an adult, is disabled. Unlike a limp or a speech impediment, the cars are always on view. I hate the way they isolate Jeff. I see the hypnotic glaze that comes over him while he is hyper-focused on a car. He derives pleasure from the "stim," that no one can ever understand or provide to him. I hate that they are an addiction, forcing Jeff into petty scams and larceny. I hate that everyone around him enables him because "he just loves cars."

I can't hate the cars categorically. Their power over Jeff is so strong that he learned classroom behavior in second grade by getting Hot Wheels as a reinforcer for appropriate behavior. Although I jokingly say, "Don't trick me into talking about cars," the cars act as a social ice breaker for Jeff. Boys come up to him to talk. Adult men are interested in chatting about his scale-models. In Dublin, an Italian man who spoke no English, was able to admire Jeff's Ferrari by saying "Vroom, vroom." It was the universal language. Jeff is known to the local adult classic car collectors: he admires the car to the proud owner, then says, "I have that one!" pulling a miniature model out of his magic bag of cars. Many members of the Monday Night Car Shows have a diminutive reproduction of their make and model sitting on the dashboard of the real car, which Jeff has sold them or proffered as a gift.

However, Jeff is out of school now. He is not in the cossetted cocoon of Cove School, where everyone knew his passion and enforced some workable boundaries. Cars had to stay in the locker. Cars were surrendered to the teacher for the duration of the class. No car trading. No cars in the elementary school wing, only in the high school recess area. Now Jeff is out and about in the community, doing work internships, using public transportation. "I worry about the cars on the train," I have told him. "You aren't paying attention to anything else and I don't want someone on the train to hurt you or rob you." Jeff's dad has put the kibosh on walking down the street while carrying a car. Like walking and texting at the same time, walking and stimming is surely as dangerous.

Like an alcoholic, Jeff frequently swears off the juice, but the self-deprivation has proved impossible. I finally engaged a therapist to assist him with some strategies for the obsession and the inappropriate behavior it causes. Here is hoping! We adults, well, many of us, have all realized that a power struggle is futile but if Jeff wants this monkey off his back, we would like to help.

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