Autism

Medicating Our Kids: Actually, Parents Do Take It Seriously

| by Susan Senator

When Nat was 7, he suddenly stopped sleeping through the night. It is an old story already, mine and so many others, of how our lives felt crushed underneath exhaustion without end and the fear that this would never get better. It is old but sharp and terrifying, still lethal, like a rusty knife hiding in the grass. It took months before we found a doctor who knew his ass from his elbow, and prescribed a drug that we had already told about (from my sister, who is a pediatrician) if he would have only listened to me, just a mother...

But let me tell you, I felt so horrible about the idea of giving Nat a drug when he wasn't sick. The drug meant, to me, that he had something wrong with him and I did not want to see him that way. I don't see him that way. As they said in that Temple Grandin movie we all loved, "Different, not lesser." When you say "something wrong with" and the person is not sick -- and I do not believe that anything environmental made Nat autistic; he was always autistic and I will show you the baby vids if you'd like to see -- you are implying something bad is going on.

(I don't even like to have to say, "different, not lesser," frankly. I don't know why, and I'm tired so I'm not going to try to figure it out. Just a feeling like I'm tiptoeing around Nat when he gets to just stomp all the time.)

The medication question was different when Nat was 11 and out of control in terms of aggression. Out. Of. Control. More accurately, we were out of control of him. I was terrified of my own little boy. One doctor was saying how he needed to go into the school's residence. Or something even more restrictive. My heart was breaking, but still I kept thinking that if we could just find the right experts to work with him, we could avoid dire action. I called my dad and sobbed into the phone, "They're saying I should send him to live at his school."

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My parents said that I didn't have to do that. "Try that medication," Dad said, referring to Risperadal, an anti-psychotic medication that our psychiatrist had mentioned. But Risperadal has potentially dangerous side effects; other than big weight gains, Risperadal can cause Tardive Dyskenisia, heart, and liver problems.

Ned and I knew that Nat was not ready to live away from home and that I certainly was not ready for it. I'm barely ready for it now, and he's 20. At the time I thought it was the worst thing you could do to a kid. Those parents that "went residential" we talked about in whispers -- like there was something wrong with them! I thought if I sent Nat away that Nat would think he was bad. My heart was breaking. How could God put so much on a family? How was it that I had to make such a choice -- either give Nat this serious medication, or send him to live at school, or continue to live with violence and outbursts. We made the decision to try the drug on him. We made it quickly but we made it with deadly seriousness.

My mother called my attention to the new book We've Got Issues, by Judith Warner. I have not read it, but I read a review of it today, which described how Warner set out to show how much and how easily we all (over)medicate our kids. But what Warner actually found, upon doing her research, is that her thesis was pretty much incorrect -- that parents actually mostly make the decision to put their kids on medication after much deliberation and agonizing, and as a last resort.

I am very glad for Warner's integrity, to shift her thinking and not try to bend her observations and data to fit her theory. But it also annoys me a lot that Warner believed what she did -- that so many of us do. It is so easy for people to believe the worst things about parents today. Parents are our favorite punching bag. It's so easy to judge others, to think that parents are going off half-assed and carelessly making decisions for their kids. I don't know anyone like that; do you? Even if I disagree with a parent's beliefs or choices -- I don't have Nat on a special diet or chelate him, my feeling is (nearly) always one of empathy. I think to myself, Well, I wouldn't do that, but I don't know what her thought process is. I don't know what goes on inside her house. I don't know what she's seen her kid do or no longer do. How the hell can I then assume that she is making a decision without much thought, without sleepless nights and weighing options? Punch, punch.

Does the general public actually believe that most parents just decide to give their kids drugs simply to make them achieve more at school or make their lives easier? Why? Why is it so easy to believe the worst in people who are parents, especially people who have a double helping of tsuris on their plate? Do we really believe that parents are that irresponsible and selfish? I'm not talking about the tragic ones who make the headlines. I mean me; I mean my friend Sheila, whose son Sam scaled ten-foot playground fences or crossed Route 9 at night just to see the new pet shop. Or the mom who didn't get to take a shower today because she is too afraid to leave her kid for a minute. Or you. Can people honestly look at us and say that we are taking the idea of medication lightly? I think it's what my great-grandma Sarel Wolfson said, that we all have our own bundle of trouble. Maybe we're just different -- but not less.