Naked Man on the Roof by Dan E. Burns, PhD

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Naked Man on the Roof By Dan E. Burns I was reading on the upstairs balcony when the cop car whipped around the corner and into my parking lot. About that time I thought I heard my son Ben’s gleeful, autistic laugh behind me. But that was impossible, because I was sure that Ben was in his room reading Dr. Seuss books. Another laugh – a shriek, really. As the cop got out of the cruiser, my neighbor came trotting up, arms windmilling. “Hey, there’s a naked man on your roof.” I looked up and yep, there stood 22-year-old Ben in all his shameless glory, tossing pecans to the squirrels. Last week, a Dallas mom responded to my blog, commenting on her son with autism spectrum disorder (ASD): “He's only 13 but he's taller than I am now. That scares me because looking like an adult and behaving inappropriately can get him into so much more trouble now.” Yeah, tell me about it. I hustled Ben back through the open window. I heard the cruiser door slam as the cop walked toward us. Ben’s been taking off his clothes more often this summer. It’s a hot, scratchy, sensory issue. For children with autism, the skin can be hypersensitive, and it’s common for them to be uncomfortable in clothes. Ben’s mom and I, former hippy skinny dippers, are not necessarily alarmed by the sight of a bare-assed kid. Except Ben is not a kid anymore. And even in laissezfaire Oak Lawn, some folks react to public nudity with fear, anger, and 911. To keep the peace, we need to reform Ben. But how to do so effectively? Ben’s older brother suggested a solution: brute force. If that fails it’s because not enough force is being applied. I can sympathize. I used to believe in an unspared rod. If that had worked, Ben would have no behavior issues today. But raising him has taught me that aversives like spanking, beating, yelling, slapping, threatening, hand clapping, and their verbal equivalents may have a dramatic short term impact, but aren’t effective for long. Turn your back and, like Johnson grass mowed down with a scythe, the roots of the misbehavior sprout a new weed. So it’s not enough to channel the fear and anger of the community and relieve your own shame and embarrassment by beating your misbehaving kid. Long term, to be effective, you must address the root issue – in Ben’s case, probably hot scratchy clothes. Fortunately, there are clothing manufacturers specializing in fabrics for children with sensory/tactile issues. Beyond that, you must replace inappropriate clothes-shedding habits with better ones, a much more difficult challenge. Ben’s mom and I are working on it. We’re using positive practice and overcorrection. Basically, walking Ben through putting his pants on five times for each infraction. That’s the same way we finally potty trained him. It’s a tedious, demanding, long-term process, but it’s worked for us before. The good news for children on the autism spectrum and their parents is that challenging behaviors can be managed without violence, seclusion, or restraints. But who’s going to do that when we’re not here? So I would ask my neighbors, and my family, for patience. The new epidemic of childhood illnesses – autism, allergies, asthma, and ADHD – is like an increasingly heavy toxin tax on our
abundant, risky lifestyle. “America is an industrial cornucopia,” said Dr. Kotsanis, Ben’s autism doctor. “Computers, cell phones, SUVs. Hundreds of new industrial chemicals each year. The trailing end of infectious disease, thanks to vaccines, but none of them safety tested in combination. So who pays?” He turned around and pointed to Ben. “He pays.” For all of us. Our ASD kids are canaries in the coal mine. And we all live in the coal mine. Dan and Autism Trust of Texas Dan E. Burns, Ph.D., former filmmaker, software developer, and businessman, taught communication courses at Southern Methodist University, the University of Texas at Arlington, and the University of Phoenix. In 1990 his third child, Benjamin, was diagnosed with autism. Burns' memoir, Saving Ben: A Father's Story of Autism ( published by UNT Press, tells of a three-year-old child's regression as an infant into autism and Burns' struggle with the medical establishment, the school system, and his family in the battle for Ben's health as a father who never gives up. Planning for the time when he and Ben's mom pass on, Dr. Burns is developing the Autism Trust of Texas, modeled on The Autism Trust (U.K.) and focused on the creation of new communities to offer a future for the increasing number of children with autism. They will provide a home base for life where adults with autism can work, live and improve their skills and talents in a creative and supportive environment.