Today I wanted to cry, but didn’t. It has been a long time since I felt overwhelmed by parenting. I’ve been a mom for nearly fourteen years now. My son is six. I’ve done six. My girls were once six, so I’ve already been here three times. But, it’s different this time. My son is autistic, and though that does not lessen my love for him, it certainly has me editing the parenting playbook I created with the first three kids. I have done this, yet I have not done this.
If you had never been around autistic kids, you might not even realize there was anything different about my son, at least for a little while. He’s verbal and loves to engage socially, however awkwardly. He doesn’t always stim, but sometimes he will jump, shake his hands, or make noises. Most people assume it’s random silliness.
Today he is sick (still, after four days), has a sore throat, and a rash began developing on his cheeks. If it wasn’t necessary, I wouldn’t have bothered taking him to the doctor. For the last two years, I have been unable to get him to take medication. There is no point taking him for medication which he will not swallow.
But, today it was necessary. We went to a walk-in urgent care facility which we have gone to a number of times. I explained to the doctor that we struggle to get my son to take medicine and asked if we might be able to get an injection. (I just said “we” when I mean “he”, but I also say “we” sometimes when I mean “me”… because that’s what parenting does to people.). I explained that even if we forced the medicine into his mouth, he would spit it out. The doctor said an injection would give no guarantees he wouldn’t still need to be on antibiotic medication.
The doctor said to me, “He is six. He is not a baby who can not be reasoned with.”
Then the doctor said to my son, “It is important to take your medicine. If you do not take it, you will have to see me again on Friday and we will have to do some things you won’t like. You do not want to see me again on Friday. So, be sure to take your medicine your mom gives you.”
My son nodded while I cringed. I have never used scare tactics about how terrible things will be if I think it will come back to bite me later. But, it was already said and there was nothing I could do about it. I’m just glad the doctor didn’t say the word “shot”.
So, I left there feeling like I had somehow failed by underestimating my son’s abilities. The doctor just explained the importance of medicine to my son and he nodded his head that he would take it. The doctor made it look so easy and I felt a little foolish.
We went to the drugstore. I let my son choose the medicine flavoring. He chose watermelon. I let my son choose TWO candies he would be allowed to have after each dose of medicine. He chose DOTS (don’t ask me why… ugh), and Skittles (wildberry flavors). So we came home with the meds, the candies, and an orange soda to wash it all down. I laid out the candies on the table beside the soda. I asked if he prefers to drink from the dose syringe like a straw, or prefers to drink from a cup himself. He chose the cup, so I set it beside the candies.
My son goes to the table and leans down to smell the medicine. I know this is a bad idea, but it’s too late. He insists he doesn’t want it. I think about what the doctor said, that he is six and can be reasoned with.
I said, “You have germs and this medicine is going to kill the germs. You need to take it or you will not get better. See the rash on your face? This medicine will help heal those places so they don’t become sores. If you don’t take the medicine, it would spread to other places, or get worse.”
“I hate the medicine!” He cried and pushed it away.
I said, “If you spill it, we have to go back to the doctor and he will force you take it.” (I avoided mention of the word “shot”.)
More refusals, more crying, more attempts to push it out of sight. I finally resigned to doing it the old fashioned way. I sucked the liquid into a dose syringe and told him I was going to have to make him take it. We go to the couch and I wrap my legs around his legs, wrap one arm around him to hold both of his hands, and begin to slowly inject the liquid into his mouth.
He screamed in fear. I hated it. It felt like I was violating him, but I didn’t know what other option I had. I wanted him to get well.
As in the past, he nearly choked on it and I had to sit him up so he wouldn’t. He was crying that it tasted bad. He refused to close his mouth or swallow. He just cried and saliva dripped from his open mouth as he said, “Ugh!” over and over.
I told him to take a drink, eat candy; but he refused. The taste on his tongue was everything. He couldn’t think of anything else. I wiped off his hands and face where sticky medicine was quickly drying. He begged for me to wipe his tongue, drool dripping.
I acted calm because my freaking out would help nothing. I acted like it was no big deal. I acted like he was not in distress. I hoped my acting would demonstrate the calm I wanted him to have.
And then he vomited. All the medicine and his orange soda from earlier were all over the floor. He walked up to me and wiped his mouth on my shirt. Somehow I ended up with it in my hair. I took him to the bathroom to wash his hands which were covered with vomit. I scrubbed quickly, wanting to erase the trauma. I got him clean and put my hair under the water, scrubbing it with anti-bacterial soap.
He said, “I will never take medicine again!” He was mournful, a boy suffering a terrible loss. He said, “Now the germs will grow and I will have more of them and I will not get better.”
Because he is six, he can reason. But he understands things in a magnified way… that medicines are not just unpleasant, they make you vomit; that doctors listen to your heart, but they also may hurt you; that germs exist and can kill you. He is VERY reasonable.
When I called the doctor and explained what happened, the initial response was to suggest he eat before taking the medicine. I explained that he did not vomit because of having no food, he vomited because the taste/feel of the medicine made him gag.
I said, “I don’t know if you saw on his chart, but he is autistic.”
He said, “Yes, but autism doesn’t cause–”
I cut him off to repeat what I had said in the office, “He’s very sensitive to unpleasant tastes or textures, but has a high pain tolerance for physical pain. I think he’d handle the shot better.”
And finally he listened, and again, I felt like I had failed. I had failed in a different way, by assuming that I was doing a bad job as a parent just because someone with a title thinks my kid can do more than I think he can. I let a stranger judge me, and him, in a way I felt instinctively was not accurate.
I don’t blame the doctor. He is working with me to figure out what is best for my son. I believe he meant well and he continues to be genuinely concerned about this situation.
But I do blame myself for pretending we are something we’re not. And for that, (and everything else, especially the fact that I had vomit in my hair), I felt like hiding in the closet and crying.