The first time Jakob had to have blood drawn, it took three of us to hold him down. He kicked, he screamed, and he fought to get free. It was a traumatizing event for both of us. It felt so very wrong and the guilt was immediate, deep and torturous. He didn’t understand what we were doing or why. I’ll never forget the look of betrayal, confusion, and the loss of trust in his eyes. It was my job to keep him safe and out of harm’s way and in that moment, I was failing. I wasn’t just failing; I was the one inflicting the pain. I couldn’t help but believe there was a different way.
In my never-ending journey to find answers and more kind and gentle ways to handle everything that comes with autism, I came across some philosophies that really resonated with me. What I model, I teach. Pain is unavoidable, but suffering is optional. Everything in life is as much fun as we make it.
The approach that I had taken on all lab experiences up to that point consisted of me putting him in the car, not talking at all about where we were going or what we were doing, taking him into a sterile room and pinning him down. I believed before we even got there that it was going to be awful, horrible and extremely painful. That was the problem. So I made the conscious decision that to no longer subscribe to that belief and that I would never jeopardize our connection, his trust in our relationship or me like that again.
About a week before Jakob’s next trip to the lab at Children’s Hospital, I got myself calm, cool, collected, and excited about how I was going to approach the whole experience. We were in his playroom, the place, and space that was designed to be “Jakob’s World.” In that room, we always did what he wanted to do in the way he wanted to do it. We played his games and we talked about what he wanted to talk about. My job was to love him, accept him, not judge him and do all of this with energy, excitement, and enthusiasm.
The trick to teaching him something new in that environment (and all environments, really) was to wait until the timing was right and then introduce the new game, idea, or experience in a way that he would enjoy. Jakob loved step-by-step, numbered lists. So when my moment came, I told him that we were going for a “quick pinch” on Saturday morning. Then I “quick-pinched” him all over like I was playing a tickle game. He thought that was pretty funny. Then I walked him through the process, modeling for him on myself what was going to happen in a very silly, animated, excited, dramatic way.
1. You’re going to stick your arm straight out. (I stuck my arm out while he watched.)
2. Then a quick pinch right here! (Squeezed the skin where the needle would go.)
3. Then we’ll countdown…10, 9, 8, 7, 6, 5, 4 etc.
4. And when we get to 0, “Boom!” The quick pinch is done!
5. Then we put on a Band-Aid (which he also loved.)
6. And we wrapped it up with a celebratory dance. “Yay! Awesome!! Good job!”
I did it all with so much of the type of enthusiasm that he loved and incorporated things that motivated him. He bought in and before I knew it, we were playing the game over and over again with his arm. He was totally into it. We ended up making one small change to the routine. Instead of counting down with numbers (effective but kind of dull,) we sang a song. As we sang the last note of the song, the needle would come out and the Band-Aid would go on. His song of choice was “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing.” It was perfect.
With a solid attitude on both our parts that this trip would be fun and that quick pinches were no big deal, we had a completely smooth and trauma-free experience. In the one brief moment when he glanced at me with a tinge of uncertainty, I remained solid and confident. That was all it took to keep him at ease and ready to sing. As it turned out, there were a few phlebotomists over the years who liked to belt out a chorus or two of one of the greatest Christmas carols of all time right along with us.
While we no longer sing or go through the theatrics of it all, we still have easy trips to the lab. He’s always excited to go and he’s always happy when we leave. I’m so grateful that we figured it all out and that his trust in me has remained intact.
It was such a powerful lesson that proved all three philosophies I mentioned earlier true. Now when we’re trying something new, I ask myself, “How do I want him to think, feel and act in this situation? Is that the way I’m thinking, feeling and acting right now?”
Because is it fair to ask him to do anything that I’m not willing to do myself? How can I teach him to be calm if I’m freaking out? How can I teach him to be happy if I’m mad? How can I expect him to be relaxed if I’m all tense? I can’t.
What I model, I teach. No matter where we’ve been or what we’ve done, it’s always my attitude that leads the way. Sometimes it may take more than one or two tries, but my sweet, trusting, fun-loving boy always ends up following.