These days, when Alphonse says NO, we have to believe he means it.
Communication is difficult for individuals with autism and Alphonse is not an exception. For those on the tail end of the spectrum- those whose disabilities are considered severe or profound- like Alphonse, speech is a most challenging obstacle. It is a huge credit to his ABA manager/teacher, Teacher Rod, that he even learned how to give “yes” or “no” answers by nodding or by shaking his head. But perhaps because the act of nodding is easier than moving the head sideways, Alphonse’s default answer to everything is “yes.”
In the beginning, we tried to find things he would object to just to emphasize the difference between a “yes” and a “no.” With food being such a strong reinforcer in his case, we thought of introducing bitter things such as ampalaya (bitter gourd) to elicit a negative reaction and associate this with the gesture and the word “no.” Weeks later, however, he began enjoying the taste of bitter gourd and we lost a reinforcer to his voracious appetite. After that, we tried chili peppers and hot sauce and even those became enjoyable to him after a while.
We had pretty much given up on ever teaching him to make “yes” or “no” choices until I inadvertently discovered he hated having his eyebrows trimmed. The pair of tweezers I use to trim and shape eyebrows scared him witless and he would shake his head and push my hands away. Of all negative reinforcers, this elicited a consistent “No” over multiple trials.
When Alphonse finally found his “no,” he began using this in earnest, answering us in the negative even with repeated questioning. Throwing in another question that is answered by a definite, unequivocal “yes” (like “Do you want bubbles?”) eliminated the uncertainty of his disagreement. I was so proud of this milestone that I whipped out the tweezers every opportunity I could get just to see him say “No.” Pretty soon, he could answer “yes” or “no” when asked if anything hurt (we go through a checklist, point to the body part, and asked if it was “ouchie”) and if he needed medicine for it. What a milestone it was!
Sometimes, however, even I forget that Alphonse’s choices do matter. This morning, after breakfast, I decided to trim his beard and clean his face. I dabbed some Cure aqua gel to exfoliate his skin and gently rubbed in circular motions to massage the product. When I got to his nose, I asked permission to rub harder.
“Alphonse, can Mama rub your nose?”
Alphonse shook his head. No.
“I need to rub your nose to clean it, Alphonse.”
More shaking of head, harder this time. A definite No.
“Well, Mama says she needs to do it, okay? So just be good.”
And so I did, completely ignoring his hands pushing me away.
I saw him look at me as a flash of anger darkened his eyes. Then, he began to pull my hair with both hands. He screeched loudly as he tore my hair from their roots.
I said nothing as I waited for the nannies to remove his hands from my head. I grabbed my hair by the roots to prevent them from being pulled but I was no match for the violence of his angry hands. My scalp stung in places but I was also still grateful that Alphonse had not employed full force. I was chastened.
I knew it was my fault. I knew that I had pushed him too far, that I had failed to respect his choice. He had tried to communicate his needs with me and I ignored them willfully. Sometimes, I forget that he does know what he wants. Sometimes, I forget that even the most well-meaning mothers have no absolute right over their children’s choices, disabled or not.
Later, as I apologized, I asked him if he was still angry with me. He shook his head and looked at me kindly.
No, Mama. I could almost hear him say.
“Do you still love Mama?” I asked timidly. He nodded. Yes. And then he bent to kiss my hair.
As Alphonse slowly finds his voice, I have to remind myself to be more sensitive and respectful of his choices. Whether I am ready for this change or not, his ability to choose for himself- however simple these choices may be- means he continues to change and evolve. I know he cannot be my baby forever.
I have to let him grow. It is time.