The chaos and mania of parenting a child on the spectrum

Why am I Still Dressing my Eight Year Old?

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Today we forgot one of my daughter’s library books. It happens. The secretary at school graciously made the comment that getting three off in the morning is “a lot.” Right before she reminded me to leave the book home next time. “That’s how they learn responsibility.”

I promised her. Next time—responsibility. I’ll get right on that. Right after I get her putting on her own underwear. Or socks. Let’s not even get started on shoelaces. They make Velcro for a reason. And luckily, she is a girl who will probably spend a good deal of her life in heels. A dose of misogyny and sadomasochism has nothing on teaching a child to tie their shoes. Her brothers somehow magically taught themselves. Her older brother, the lefty, didn’t have a chance in hell of learning to tie them from me. But what do you do when your child can’t even put on underwear?

If it’s not the direction of the underwear—sometimes upside down, sometimes sideways, it is the material they are made out of, or the tightness around her legs. I have bought larger underwear, character underwear, plain underwear, and $40 per three pack seamless underwear, and the only consistency in our underwear routine is that I have to be in her room to help her put them on. That is, if we can find a pair she will tolerate. Mommy has tried selling her on the merits of going commando. “Look, Mommy doesn’t have on underwear either.” I can’t wait until that gets back to the teacher.

But, no, even that doesn’t work. She is holding out for the underwear. It has become something of a comic routine. That is, if I had a sense of humor at 6:30 in the morning. With a strong cup of java, I have on occasion been able to find the amusement in it. There I am, kneeling on the floor of her room like some sort of courtly jester, holding up different pairs of teeny underwear. The ones with the pink bears? “I hate that one.” The one with the hearts and musical notes. “I don’t like them.” These have pictures of Elsa. “I hate those. I hate them all.”

I have even wondered if I could fit into the Elsa ones. They were sure winners, and I hate to have to donate them. Do I dare even take out the sensory sensitive underwear made from seamless cushiony cotton? Like an animal rejecting her young, my daughter will shriek and recoil, backing herself onto her bed, should I even hold them at a close distance. She loathes being different. (Maybe she should start dressing herself like her brothers), I think unkindly.

While my sons have dressed, fed themselves cereal, and packed their own snacks (or eaten them while waiting for us to come downstairs), we are still working on underwear. I can feel the pressure mounting as I tick off the things that have left to be done– snacks in bags, field trip form, library books, nagging her brother to brush his hair (with a brush this time), and I quickly begin to lose patience with her.

“What’s wrong with these?” I bark at her, holding up the pair with the barking puppies. If I was wearing those all day, I would be sure to smile. I even make sound effects. Bark, bark, bark. That was a miscalculation. By no means does she want her underwear to bark. Nice going, mom. Another round of shrieking ensues, and I am starting to become anxious about the time. And then I get annoyed. I get angry. I pull out a pink pair like I mean business. I give her two choices like her therapists have always suggested, and whip them against the dresser. “That’s it now,” I tell her, like I have had control the whole time. “Pink kitties or musical notes?”

She comes over, grabs them, and stuffs them forcefully in her drawer, and then grabs the rainbow pair I took out in the first place. I am so relieved to be done with it, I stuff down this annoyance. Then I just get on my knees and start putting on her underwear for her while she plays games on my phone or prances her stuffed animal across my head.

While I sit there struggling for her to not just lift her feet (which seem cemented to the floor) at the right time, but also the correct foot, I wonder whether I am doing her a great disservice by dressing her. I am reminded that she started this skill in private occupational therapy almost three years ago. I know that I am indulging her. I know she is capable of getting her underwear on. It may take her several rounds. It may take fifteen minutes, as she trips, and grunts, and stumbles, putting both feet into one whole, or one leg in the wrong side, so she is wearing her underwear on her hip.

I remember I used to feel angry at the occupational therapist, a young, robust woman, with a no-nonsense attitude who would watch my girl try and put on her jacket in the waiting room, letting her meltdown and scream as she kept sticking her arm in the wrong hole over and over. When my daughter swung at her out of frustration or pinched the therapists arm, she would simply tell her no, and force her to start over. I hated her for it. It was painful. Humiliating. The entire waiting room was watching.

Maybe if I had done the hard work then, I wouldn’t be dressing her now. Sometimes, when we are not running behind, I will force her to do it herself. When we have found a clean, acceptable, rainbow pair of underwear with bows in the front that help her with directions.

Then we will have to find non-scratchy pants that don’t squeeze her underwear or have buttons that are too tight. Then will have to find shirts without tags that only have sparkles or rhinestones on them. And hair pins that are not for babies or have the word bobby in them. Or detangling spray that doesn’t make your hair too wet. We’re going to have to take baby steps. Or onesies or two-sies, or three-sies. Or in our case, eight years of painstaking too old to be doing this steps.

I can only be responsible for one thing at a time. We are at baseline here, just trying to make the slow torturous climb to self-sufficiency, and we are starting at the bottom with underwear. Maybe we will get to socks later in the year….and as far as responsibility…well, get back to me when she’s nine.



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