Saturday, April 29, 2017

When Even Numbers Become Odd

The first time it happened I scratched my head and dismissed it as odd. The second time I raised my eyebrows and thought “Oh no. Please let me be wrong”. The third time I knew: my son with autism has added to his rigid routine. There is one more hoop he now jumps through so he can keep his world well-ordered and balanced.

"I'm makin' waffles" is a favorite
movie line at our house.
Routine is very important in our house. My son with autism needs many things to stay the same. Sometimes those routines are easy to accommodate, and sometimes they are not. Sometimes they are harmless, and sometimes they are not. Sometimes, knowing the difference is tricky. The same breakfast every morning has not been an issue that mattered to us. Two waffles and a glass of milk: nothing peculiar about that, right?

Most mornings for the past two years, my fifteen-year-old son Tate rises each morning to fix himself two toaster waffles. Up until a couple of years ago, I prepared his waffles, and if I was unavailable then he was able to get himself a bowl of Cinnamon Toast Crunch, his favorite cereal. When Tate showed an interest in making his own waffles, I taught him how. He had a very hard time spreading margarine on them so he chose to eliminate that step and do without. He’s become very independent in the mornings, and I have been encouraged and relieved that he can do so much more for himself now.

Recently, I noticed Tate had three waffles and I was tickled to see him “mixing it up” a bit. The number two was not a fixed number for him! The next few days he was back to two waffles. A few days later it was three again. And then the third time I saw he had three waffles, I realized there is a pattern. On the days Tate’s little sister chooses to have a waffle (yes “A” waffle, as she only eats one), those are the days he has a third waffle. So, I began to experiment. If I also had one waffle on the days my daughter chose to eat one, then Tate had two. Yesterday, I asked Tate if he were going to eat two or three waffles. He told me he did not know, and that he needed to see the box of waffles. I asked him why, but I already knew. He said he needed to count the waffles. I counted and told him there were seven waffles. He said he would have three. I told him that I was going to have one too. He then told me, “in that case, I will have two waffles today.” He does not want to have an odd number of waffles left in the box. It must be even.  The number of waffles on his plate did not matter, but the number left in the box did.

But before I even had time to think long about that issue, a similar issue came up.  

If you have followed my blog long, you will already know that Tate has a love of laundry, clean laundry. He brings me the hampers in the house every-other-day, usually on his own, and becomes my taskmaster until I have completed it. Once the family’s clothes and all the towels are clean and in their proper places, he believes his job as my supervisor is over, until the next time. Part of Tate’s routine is to bring the hamper from his own upstairs bedroom, along with the hamper from the bathroom upstairs, one in each hand, down the stairs. He hauls them to the laundry room, where he dumps them. It is sometimes quite a heavy load but he is a strong guy and those hampers come down as a pair. Always.

Last evening, I was preparing to do laundry and I asked Tate to bring me his hamper. Tate usually follows directions nicely. Even if he verbally objects to my request, he usually complies. But this time, he did not move. He told me he could not get his hamper because someone was in the shower upstairs. I was preoccupied with my own thoughts and told him that I had not requested the hamper from the bathroom, but only needed him to bring me the one from his own room. He repeated that he could not do that until the person in the shower was finished. I stopped what I was doing and looked at him. I insisted that he go bring me one hamper now and then he could bring me the other later. He slowly turned and went up the stairs. He returned with his hamper, looking visibly pained. He then went back upstairs to wait at the bathroom door for the other hamper to become available to him. I had always assumed he brought me two hampers at a time, out of convenience, not as part of a compulsion.

And so the turmoil inside my mind begins: “Does waffle counting ‘hurt’ anyone? Does the fact that Tate prefers to bring those two hampers down together, really make a difference in the grand scheme of things? I can let these things go. This is not a big deal. After all, things like his love of laundry are a bit odd, but we work around that. And only getting a haircut on Thursdays can be managed most of the time”. And then I have the other thoughts: “Clean laundry is something everyone needs, and doing the laundry is a skill he can use. But a bag of even numbered waffles is not. This will just be the beginning if I ignore it. We have battled things much bigger than this and come out victorious”. I know from experience that I have to work hard to eliminate this, before it rules his life, and the lives of those around him.

Knowing that some of Tate’s rigid eccentricities over the years have become a real handicap to him, gives me the motivation that I need to resolve myself. I will begin immediately to enforce some new rules. There will be a two waffle per person limit at the Smith house now, regardless of the number left in the package. And hampers will come down the stairs one at a time. If this is like past behaviors we have dealt with, then we are in for a rough three or four weeks before Tate can breathe easy about breaking his new ingrained rules and routine. 

When Tate was younger and demanded we drive the same route to any given place, we had to use some tough love to teach him that the path did not matter as long as we got to the desired destination. When he tried to assign us all seats in the living room, we had to use some tough love to teach him that he did not get to choose for people where they would sit. These things are no longer a problem for Tate. But what if we had not tried to help him to overcome his unrealistic orders? He would be enslaved to the routines that he now finds unnecessary. And our family would be too. Yes, the next few weeks will be tough ones, but the benefits of the hard work will far outweigh the short-term peace I could have by ignoring the new hoops Tate has erected to jump through. 

Note: After explaining to Tate that I had a couple of new rules, the hampers coming down one at a time does not seem to be nearly as big of a deal to him as the new limit on waffles. It did occur to me that he may decide he is only going to have ONE waffle now some days. I may have to work hard making sure some days we are left with an uneven number of waffles. But then: who is obsessing over the number of waffles in the package? Me or him? This is not an easy tight rope I am walking on. 


  1. Lisa, I love your blogs and your cartoons. I have a daughter with FASD, and I work with people with Autism on a daily basis. Today's blog touches on something that I have been thinking about a lot lately. It is indeed a tightrope.