One of the things that I deal with a lot is Jacob's appearance. He's what I call a "shulb", always content to wear the same wrinkled t-shirt and sweatpants with holes in the knees. He likes to limit his shaving to once a week. His hygiene is pretty good, but he usually uses as little toothpaste as possible and almost every morning he asks me to smell his hair to see if it needs washing. He's a nice looking young man, but I sometimes I think of how he could have movie-star good looks if only he'd work out and shop for some cool clothes.
Jacob and I have been enrolled in a program called Relationship Development Intervention for a few years now, and I absolutely love it. It has really helped to remove the conflicts that used to be common between us. With the help of our RDI consultant, Chris Mulligan, I learned that I was constantly telling Jacob what to do. Jacob didn't like this, and his response was to object and resist pretty much anything I requested. Now after a couple of years with Chris, I feel a lot more relaxed in our relationship. I'm definitely more empowered as a parent. When I make a request, Jacob sometimes objects, but now he's much more likely to agree. Our relationship is by no means perfect, but at least I we're not constantly butting heads the way we used to.
RDI is a program where parents work with a certified RDI consultant to re-establish the parent-child relationship through shared activities. These positive experiences create new neuropathways in the child's brain, and from these, he learns how to become more flexible and adaptable, stop being cognitively rigid, perceive how others feel, and adapt to change without becoming overwhelmed.
I know a lot about RDI. I ran a tiny private school for a couple years and Dr. Gutstein and Dr. Sheely, the two doctors that developed the program, were my bosses when I first started. Dr. Gutstein is also one of the professional advisors for the College Internship Program, and I'm the new Director for the Long Beach program that is opening this Fall. I always recommend RDI to parents, though it is pretty expensive. In Los Angeles, the cost of the consultant's fees are usually over $100 per hour, and the subscription to the RDI website, which is required to be enrolled in the RDI program, is about $1200 per year. Luckily, the Regional Center has been covering the Chris' fees and I received a scholarship for the website subscription, though I'll be paying for the RDI subscription when I start working full-time for CIP.
So, with my RDI mindset, I don't bug Jacob about his appearance anymore. Thanks to my work with Chris, I've learned change the way I communicate with Jacob. I've stopped telling him to wash his hair and put on a nice shirt, because he'd just reject my suggestions. Instead, I let him know what the impact of his decisions will be. I tell him that his appearance is a communication to the outside world, and he'll get more respect when he puts some effort into his appearance. Respect is important for Jacob so I think this idea really stays with him. I no longer make demands with the expectation that he'll comply. Now I share with Jacob my thoughts and feelings, and because Jacob knows what I think is important, he'll make decisions that are more likely to agree with me. And, judging from how much less stress I experience in our relationship, I think it's working.
Jacob is only 17, and he is not interested in a girlfriend. Doesn't want to be tied down, he says, and I couldn't be happier. He'll have plenty of time to date in his lifetime. Most young adults with autism are at a developmental age 2/3 of their chronological age, so I'm guessing around 20, 21 or 22, he'll start wanting to date. And I'm almost positive that when this happens, he'll want to wear nice clothes, he'll start shaving every day, and he'll start working out. When he's truly motivated to find a girlfriend, he put the effort into look good. No amount of nagging or complaining from me is going to make this happen. Until the internal motivation switch to look good is flipped, Jacob will continue in his shulb-like ways until he has a reason to change.
I'm content to wait it out until Jacob decides to put some effort into his appearance.
But there is one positive to his appearance apathy. Shopping for clothes is pretty cheap when all you wear are sweats and t-shirts.
When Susan isn't busy setting up CIP in Long Beach, being Jacob's mom, or being President of the Autism Society of Los Angeles, she blogs at Taking the Awe out of Autism.