Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Measuring Emotional State and Its Aftermath!

After watching the news this past weekend, besides the typical parent grief I felt, an added measure of grief burdened my heart.  Adam was said to have had Aspergers.  So does my son.  What will the world learn about Aspergers?  What associations will they make between Adam and my son?  Will the facts of Aspergers be told or will just the emotional outbursts be exploited?  Many questions swirled in my head while I mourned the loss of all those beautiful children and grieved for a community in shock.

As the subject of emotional stability among those with Aspergers was discussed, I began to ponder my own son's emotional state and began to wonder if there is a way to predict and measure the emotional state of a person with Aspergers. 

Seriously, is it possible to measure a child's emotional stability?  I'm not a trained psychologist, but I do live with a son with Asperger's Syndrome who can rev up from 0 to 60 at a seemingly non-existant trigger.  I have seen the pendulum of emotions go from pleasant to violent in no time flat.  So, does that make me qualified to create a scale to measure emotions on, no way!  But, After last Thursday's school shootings I have been thinking lots about my own son's fragile emotions and outbursts. He is in no way as troubled as Adam must have been but he can be emotionally fragile nonetheless.

Like many people on the autism spectrum, my son, age 14, has his own share of preoccupations.  His longest lasting fascination is with the weather.  He has wanted to be a meteorologist since before he was even able to pronounce the word. 

We are constantly informed through our Jr. meteorologist about the current and upcoming weather conditions anywhere in the world! "Dad, did you know there was a typhoon in the Philippines today?" would be typical dinner conversation in our home.  We do our best to humor these conversations but as those of you who live with a kiddo with this type of preoccupation know, it can sometimes be difficult to care after your child monologues about his our her favorite interest without taking a breath for minutes on end! :O)

So, what to the fragile emotions of people with autism or other emotional / social or mental illnesses and weather have in common? As I have pondered this past week I have learned that they have much in common! 

If you spend much time at all watching The Weather Channel, you will soon find out that storms and other weather and geological phenomena are categorized by a scale.  Some scales are used in making predictions such as the TORCON model for predicting the likelyhood of tornadoes.  Environmental conditions, and the whereabouts of an approaching storm and surely other factors as well are all taken into consideration to determine how likely a tornado will form for a given location. My son is facinated with this prediction factor!  This scale goes from 1 to 10; a one meaning there is only about a 10% chance of a tornado developing in the prescribed area and a 10 would mean that you better just spend the day in your basement! If we were under a TORCON of 8 or higher he would  actually be excited rather than terrified! If you ask Caleb who his favorite storm chaser is, he actually has one!  Its too bad they don't make cards for storm chasers like baseball cards!

OK, to put the TORCON idea into practice in our house, we have to take into consideration the environmental factors such as temperature, noise, time of day, hunger and sleep levels and then we can probably make a pretty accurate prediction of our son's emotional state.  Is he well rested, well fed, sitting in a quiet room (Where his sister is not singing...) in comfortable clothes?  If this was the case we could probably assign him an emotional factor of about a 2.  No big emotional storms to worry about at the moment!  Within minutes however, these conditions could change! Any little irritating, repetitive noise could aggrivate him. His tummy might begin to growl.  A tag might start rubbing him... His emotional stability number would begin to rise! As his number rises it would be like hanging out in Kansas, a.k.a. Tornado Alley, in May!

Combined with environmental factors are stress factors.  When Caleb was younger, the environmental factors outweighed the stress factors.  It was the environment that caused him stress when he was little. A smell or itchy tag could leave him reeling. At 14, however, he handles environmental factors with a little more finesse and has "bigger" teenage stressors:  responsibilities, school and being made to show respect (This is especially hard for a person with limited abilities to read social cues and understand his own tone of voice.).  Being made to do any of the above things can royally stress out his fragile nervous system!  We hope and pray that the environmental factors are in place if we have to ask him to do school, show respect or carry out a responsibility.  If they are not in place, immediately his emotional reaction (and often his compliance) will go south!  So to make a most accurate prediction of how Caleb will handle a situation emotionally, we have to combine both the environment and what is being asked of him.

I have decided to call my scale the Emotional Stability Factor! ESF for short! :O)Because all good medical and scientific things are abbreviated, right?  When taking all of the stressors into consideration, at any given moment, what level of emotional stability can we expect our son to be able to perform? On a scale of 0 to 10 here is what I came up with:

0 = Complete emotional control!  No environmental or stress factors.  OK, as you may have guessed, for a child on the spectrum, this is fairy tale land!  There is always something to stress him out!

2 = Presence of one or two stress or environmental factors.  Perhaps he's just tired or hungry and but being made to do math. Or, the other way around, if he is doing math, to stay at a 2, he has to be well rested and have his tummy full! He can probably still be expected to have emotional and respect control at this stage.

4 = Presence of one or two environmental and stress factors. We are nearing emotional shutdown here! (and yes, I'm only at #4, but keep in mind, these kiddos are emotionally fragile to begin with.) If he is tired AND hungry AND made to diagram sentences when the weather is changing outside, we can be assured that he will soon be loosing control and escalating off this scale if at least one factor is not taken care of Immediately!

6 = Presence of many environmental and more than one stress factor.  For example, if he is tired AND hungry AND doing math AND made to show respect when I point out that he forgot to do a step in the process he may not be able to maintain emotional control even if he wanted to

*At this point on our scale, nine times out of ten, Caleb will enter into an anxiety ridden tantrum and there will be no turning back to a more restful, calm emotional state!  Nine times out of ten if we reach this point, Caleb's fight, flight or fright preaction kicks in. The base of his brain is in full control, not the frontal, thinking, rational part of his brain.  At this point we have to have no emotional, social or respect expectations of him if we want him to calm down.  He is beyond the point of regaining control without removing ALL of the stressors and adding in time for emotional recovery.  If ALL the stressors AND parental expectations are removed, if given enough time, he may move back down the scale even before he sleeps it off.  The key is removing all expectations.  That's hard for a parent who has principles and wants their child to gain control while showing respect on his own, despite the stressors.   "Just get a grip," and "Just suck it up and be obedient and respectful" are not neurological options.

8 = Presence of all the stressors in #6 without removing any of the stressors.  When an emotionally disabled person is already to the point where they can not think rationally, adding the extra stress of MAKING them "return" their emotions to "normal" is like asking a fish not to live in the water.  It just can't be done. (Or at least so extremely rarely that I don't know if I have ever seen it happen!) At this point, the response of the emotionally spent person is likely to fight!  Even when his dad is still 100 pounds heavier and a foot taller, Caleb's brain does not notice!  At this point, if we insist he does what we ask without removing all of his stressors, it gets physical! 

10 = Moments or days on end with no respite from the emotional stress mentioned in levels 6 - 8.  When a child's brain has no rest from this kind of processing, it begins to shut down and avoid stress at all costs.  We have seen this at our house in the forms of delusions and suicidal thoughts.  This is also very emotionally exhausting for the parent as well!  When a brain is under this kind of stress an "escape clause" seems to be the only way out.  For me, escaping means getting an extra sugar buzz or reading a good book! Pepsi and snacks are my nemesis if I don't take the time to give these moments of extreme emotional exhaustion over to God and just rest and pray in Jesus lap.  For Caleb, being unde this kind of pressure for days on end leaves him creating his own reality. (Medication really helps keep him from going here.) Our doctor told us that his imaginary "friends" and created "reality" is an easier world to live in than the real one.  At his worst, Caleb longs to escape the emotional pressures he feels trapped in by longing to leave this life and go be with Jesus.  (That's a nicer way of saying he has had suicidal thoughts.)  He does know that there is a better place called heaven with a completely healthy brain waiting for him some day and quite honestly I don't blame him for wanting to be there now! 

WOW, now that I have actually written that Scale down, I can see the days of my life in numbers.  Today we fluctuated between a 3 and 4 at worst!  Not Bad!  Then again 2 weeks ago we were at an 8 for a few hours!  Three years ago we traveled all the way to 10 for a couple of months. That was when we decided homeschooling was the best option for our family.

Maybe I should share this scale with Caleb.  I wonder if he could see the progression of his emotions in a number pattern rather than in just words, feelings and emotions.  He can relate to numbered scales on The Weather Channel so well; maybe he could begin to see the numbers he wants to try to stay at and avert a full blown meltdown?  I wonder if it will help him conceptualize his emotions or just embarass him?  I'll have to pray about the sharing!

As I mentioned before, the TORCON model predicts tornadoes. AND the Emotional Stability Factor predicts the chance of an emotional outburst.  The following scale, which I am going to call The Emotional Fallout Scale (I made this one up too!) measures the aftermath of an emotional meltdown.  This scale is like the Fugita scale.  If you watch The Weather Channel, you know that the Fugita Scale measures he intensity of tornadoes AFTER they have struck!  It measures the destruction and damage in terms of how much the tornado "eats."  After an emotional meltdown at my house, we often feel like we live in the debris path of wrecked emotions and sometimes even wrecked furniture, torn clothes and bruises!

The Emotional Fallout Scale only goes to 5.

0 = no damage emotional or physical
1 = minimal emotional and physical damage
2 = some remembered emotional and physical damage that takes a while to recover from for both the child and parent
3 = more emotional and physical damage for both child and parent
4 = much emotional and physical damage for both child and parent
5 = irreparable emotional and physical damage for both child and parent

I know these are very general and pretty vague descriptions but I need more time to think through more specific consequences.  

So, just because my son is emotionally fragile and prone to outbursts and meltdowns, should he be categorized with a psychopathic killer? I think not, but rather than explain why in my mom opinion, the following link is one of the best responses to Friday's tragedy.  Take the time to read his more educated opinion:

John Elder Robison 
John Elder Robison is the author of "Look Me In The Eye," one of my favorite books about living with Aspergers.  His article is called, "Aspergers, Autism, and Mass Murder" and is the best I have read concerning Friday's murders and Aspergers.

As I sit at my laptop tonight, the ESF in the living room is quite good! Probably only a two.  We are watching a movie that Caleb is enjoying, he just ate dessert, hasn't taken his melatonin yet, and is in a great mood.  We are all relaxed and enjoying this family moment!  While I am not naive enough to think this moment will last forever,  I am enjoying it while it lasts!  

p.s.  Our area of Indiana is getting ready for snow in the next few days.  AND you know how I know the most up to the minute weather forecast for our zip code!  :O)