As the day wound down, Bud opened the Mickey Mouse Clubhouse DVD that Santa had tossed in his bag as a last minute add-on. (Santa had heard a rumor that Bud developed an intense Mickey Mouse fascination after all the Christmas shopping was done.) Inside the DVD case, Bud found an advertisement for the Mickey Mouse Clubhouse toy - a replica of the house from the show, complete with all of his newly-beloved character friends (in other words, EXACTLY the sort of toy that Bud loves best of all) - and Bud realized that he'd missed his opportunity to request the toy from Santa. Calmly, he brought the ad to me and said, "I want this for my birthday."
As the evening wore on, Bud must have done the math and realized he'd be in for a long wait for his September birthday. He called me from his bed long after I thought he was asleep, and asked, "Mama, can I have a sticker chart?"
Sticker charts are a technique we've used as an incentive for Bud to do things that are difficult - going to sleep by himself, remembering to use the toilet, swallowing pills. Bud earns a sticker each time he successfully completes the designated task, and after a predetermined number of stickers he earns a much-coveted prize. Bud desperately wanted the Mickey Mouse Clubhouse without waiting until his birthday, and he guessed that a sticker chart would be the most likely route to getting it.
I told Bud that we'd talk about it in the morning, then set about considering our options. Bud's motivation for this toy would be high, and I knew it provided an opportunity to work on a particularly daunting challenge. Two things came to mind: nighttime pull-ups and vegetables.
I ruled out pull-ups after only a few minutes' consideration. We use sticker charts for behaviors over which Bud has control. Sticker charts allow him to make choices - do the thing and get a sticker, or don't do the thing right now with the knowledge that you can do it and get a sticker some other time. No pressure. Low stakes. All in your own time. But I'm not sure that staying dry at night is a choice that Bud would be able to make, even if he wanted to. Lots of seven-year-olds - even those without autism - use pull-ups at night. Bud may not be biologically ready yet, and I didn't want to risk setting him up for failure or, perhaps worse, making him feel self-conscious or ashamed.
So veggies it was. Bud has always been good about eating vegetables, as long as they're pureed and in a jar marked "Gerbers." He likes the taste of vegetables, but he balks at chunks of them. Maybe it's the texture. Maybe it's just the idea. Either way, Bud has refused to let a solid vegetable pass his lips for years.
In the morning, when Bud asked again about a sticker chart, I pitched the vegetable idea - and, eager to do whatever it took, Bud signed on happily. We put together a sticker chart with 32 boxes for stickers followed by a picture of the Mickey Mouse Clubhouse, and we hung it on the refrigerator.
At lunchtime, when it was time to start trying to earn stickers, Bud balked again. I'd started with green beans - one of his favorites - but he could barely get past licking them. He finally choked one down by tossing it back with milk, like he was swallowing a pill, then suggested that we start with celery instead. He munched a celery stalk and a raw carrot (I have a hunch he's been eating these at school), and earned three stickers - one for each kind of veggie he'd eaten. We were off to a good start.
At dinner, it was time to try again, but Bud was in the mood for negotiation. He would eat a vegetable, he said, if he could have ALL of his stickers in exchange for it. He whined and wheedled, but I stayed firm as the veggies on his plate grew cold. Finally, he tried another green bean, and he gagged.
Maybe this is too much for him, I thought. Maybe he really can't do this.
I suggested to Bud that for this sticker he could go back to baby food, but that he would need to feed himself. (Another veggie quirk of Bud's is that, although he feeds himself everything else, he will only eat his pureed veggies if they are fed to him - but then he eats them happily.)
Bud sat at the table with his pureed green beans untouched in front of him as he continued to negotiate and complain ("How about cake? Cake could be vegetables!"). Slowly, the rest of the dinner dishes were cleared and Bud wandered away from the table. The green beans sat cold and menacing like something out of a scene in Mommy Dearest. I picked them up and told Bud that dinner was over, and that he could try again tomorrow.
And then, the post-Christmas crash I'd been expecting the previous day descended on Bud as he wailed and cried and shouted and, finally, dissolved. I hustled him into his pajamas and he fell into bed, dejected and discouraged.
"It's okay, Bud," I said. "You don't have to worry. You'll get all the stickers. We'll do it together."
"You will take care of me, Mama?"
"Of course I will."
"It will be okay?"
"It will be okay. I promise. But now it's sleeping time. Do you want me to read a book to you?"
"I just want mumblemumblemumble..."
"What's that, Bud?"
"I just want you to be my friend."
"Oh, sweetie," I said, climbing up beside him, "I am always your friend." Bud slid over and put his head on my chest. I clicked off the light, and he fell into a deep sleep.
The next morning, I woke to Bud's calm, clear voice in my ear: "Mama, may I try again?"
I assured him he could try again - and try he has. We're keeping the portions small. We're celebrating the small successes. We're working through a few gags here and there. He's spit out a mouthful or two. But he's eaten corn, carrots (raw and cooked), celery, peas, and even green beans. He's earned seventeen stickers and one big sense of accomplishment. The Fed Ex truck should deliver the Clubhouse tomorrow, right about the time we're posting sticker number 32.
Maybe we'll celebrate with some broccoli.