Mafe Maria: Personal stories by autism parent mentor, Maria Stultz

Embracing my high-needs little angel

Yesterday, right after I finished writing about why I need a nanny, Joaquin and I went out for our weekly playgroup, and if the last two classes at the Little Gym have been a nightmare, yesterday afternoon I really wanted to move to a different planet and not give Joaquin my new address. Joaquin was awful! He yelled and whined, and moaned non–stop for my attention. He’d wander out of the play area and end up in Kim’s formal living room, and out of nowhere he’d start screaming and crying as if I had taken him there and then I had abandoned him. He wouldn’t play like all the other kids. He would bring books for me to read, and then refuse to listen to my reading. A very load “Mmmmmmm mmmm mmmm” serenaded the adult conversation and demanded my full attention for most of the playdate. This behavior hit me like a bomb at the worst time…

I rebelled against his ruining this little piece of social interaction I’ve worked hard to bring to my life. I didn’t want to be loving, and patient, and caring, and give him the attention he demanded. I wanted him to behave! To be “normal” like the other kids. I didn’t want this. And I’m sure that my attitude made it even worse for him. So it was only until the playdate was almost over that Joaquin finally settled down and started playing peacefully like he usually does. I came home exhausted, feeling like a victim, and as soon as Joey came back from work, I went upstairs to consult my good friend Google.

I began searching for “high–maintenance toddlers”, which directed me to “high–needs toddlers” with a couple of book suggestions, and the best: After reading a little bit about these “high–needs” children, my perspective changed. See, lately I’ve started referring to Joaquin as “the toughest child” in our playgroup, a “difficult toddler”, a “challenging child”; but these books change those negative labels to more neutral adjectives like “high–needs” and “spirited”.

I’m not sure that Joaquin fits all the characteristics of spirited children, but reading through these articles reminded myself of how forever since he was born, I’ve always noticed that Don Joaquin seems to be more needy and demanding than the average child his age I find everywhere else… That child at the baby store, content and peaceful while being pushed on a shopping cart… The child I saw today sleeping in her mother’s arms at Target… The other seven children in the Mother’s Morning Out program from which Joaquin was kicked out… Every kid at our Little Gym class, all of who perform every single skill, rarely resist anything, and never cry… Brayden, who happily plays on his own at home and sits still and smiles for studio photos… Rory, who lets her mom brush his teeth and change his diaper, and goes out shopping with her… Natalie, who swings like a maniac on the playground, and has no problem landing head first on the water after being pushed down a pool slide…

My little one, he’s the complete opposite of every single one of the examples above. And looking back to history…

  • Joaquin was so impatient when he couldn’t crawl. His efforts to become mobile were relentless. He was so driven, and was the first one to crawl and walk among his playmates.
  • He refused to be restrained by anything. The swing, the car seat, the bouncy seat, the stroller, the sling… Remember how he got out of the highly–acclaimed Bumbo seat within minutes of putting him on it?
  • He was and still is impatient. So impatient, I never seemed to let down the milk — or now pour it into the cup — fast enough. And God have mercy on us all if I don’t start reading the book within a second of being requested by Don Joaquin.
  • He used to be a very frequent feeder… Remember how I had to plan to pull the boob out immediately upon arrival at our destination every time I dared to take him out on the car?
  • He hates failing! And he refuses to be taught how to do something. He must figure out how to do it himself, at his own pace… One day he surprised me going down the stairs. And when he started walking he never had any accidents; he walked like a pro from the beginning. It’s as if he practices when I’m not looking around, and only starts doing things when he’s damn sure that he won’t fail and look like a fool. He may be a perfectionist, or just plain proud.
  • He demands a lot of my attention, wants me always fully engaged, and leaves me exhausted at the end of the day.
  • He resists with passion being pushed to do things. Little Gym has not been fun… I am officially known as the mother of the child who cries almost the entire class, every class. When Joaquin performs a skill, his whole class claps and cheers as if he was a special–needs kid who was finally able to do something challenging for his physical capacity.
  • And yes, the biggie for the longest time: Joaquin exhibits separation/strangers anxiety much stronger and persistent than any other child his age I know.

All of the above seem to award him the “high–needs toddler” label. Plain “separation anxiety” has never come close to define my little angel. So there I have it: My child does in fact fit some sort of documented group. I may not know any other children like him, but there certainly are some. There are several other mothers out there who’ve cried like me wondering what the hell is wrong with their willful and clingy children… Where they’ve gone wrong… When things will get easier… Why every other child seems like a mellow angel so much easier to live with, so much less limiting. And the perspective that my child is in fact different, and that the payoff for my effort is a very cool, smart, driven, empathetic, potentially world–changing adult, believe me… Helps me so much!

So much that, under that new light, I just spent a wonderful morning with Joaquin. I brought my laptop and resumed my search from yesterday. Found an article and started reading it while Joaquin played around me. He’d play for a while, and then bring something to me. I’d stop my reading and respond to Joaquin. I’d play with him for about 5 minutes, and I’d see him suddenly becoming engaged on something new. I’d resume my reading. After a while he’d come back with a new thing for us to do. I’d interrupt my thing and respond to him. And what an angel! See, when I give this much attention to my bollo, he magically appears to become more patient, more respectful of my needs, more willing to work with me, and he dazzles me with how smart he is. It is at times like this that he shows me all his new tricks. So on these days that I give and give without expecting anything for me, the payoff from Joaquin is huge.

Sure, there’s no way I can keep giving this much every day of my life. So I do need a nanny. This morning I thought that I can do this for him IF if know that there will be one day every week where I won’t do it, and that day will be all mine. And I can do this if I don’t have expectations to achieve anything important or complete any project while I’m with him. That’s the tricky part for me: Being totally in the present… Lowering my expectations… Resigning myself to just do this, to accomplish nothing bigger than a tiny thing like reading ONE web article in 2 hours… It almost sounds like a meditative exercise to suppress your ego. But I think I can do it if I know that I will have a break to recover and replenish my energy. At least, I want to try it.

So after putting Joaquin down for his nap, I called the nanny. Unfortunately she didn’t want to take the job. I’m not sure why, and she wasn’t able to tell me exactly why her gut was not feeling that this was a right fit for her long term. I have some guesses, but it doesn’t matter. Although I didn’t get a nanny today, she told me she would be willing to babysit if I ever needed it. That’s a lot of help, and somehow knowing that at least I have that, keeps me satisfied for now. You probably don’t know how daunting it is to receive a Jury Duty notice and know that there is nobody in your city you can think of that you would feel comfortable asking to take care of your baby for two full days. As much as I like and trust my playgroup friends, I don’t feel I could ask them such a favor. I couldn’t ask a friend to take care of my high–needs child for free. So knowing that there is somebody I trust willing to do it, helps me go through this day.

I think I’ll keep looking for a nanny, go get some books at the bookstore to try to keep my positive outlook on my challenging parenting situation, and while Joaquin lacks the communication skills to engage with me on verbal negotiations (e.g. understand my bribes), I’ll just have to lower my expectations. Sounds like I’m embarking on raising a little center of the universe, but that’s not the case. Without some kind of balance between him and I, this won’t work… I just have to figure out how to split my energy between him and I, and I know that there will be many times when my supply will be down and he’ll just have to suck it and suffer the frustration of not getting what he wants. Lots of work ahead for this baby and his mommy…

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  1. On , Jennifer wrote:

    Hey missy!

    I’m so sorry that you’re struggling with Joaquin. I’m sure things will evolve and get easier for your as he grows up. In fact, a lot of those qualities sound like he’s extremely bright and born for success. :)

    And (you’ll probably kill me for this) several of the behaviors you listed reminded me of our working together… Like, when you just wanted me to ‘understand’ what you were saying, that it was ‘right’ and I just ‘had to listen’ to you, but my little brain wouldn’t keep up. You’d get frustrated and keep going faster and faster and I’d have to say, “Stop. My brain doesn’t process as fast as you… let me just think for a minute.” :) Or, those times you and Sean would go at it (which, yes, he was most often in the wrong, but still).

    I will say, I never felt you were remotely ‘high-needs’. I thought – and still do – that you were extremely bright and creative and just had a lot of passion for your life and work. So, I guess what I’m saying is… he’s maybe a lot like you? :)


  2. On , Maria wrote:

    No, I won’t kill you for that insight because you are ABSOLUTELY RIGHT!

    In many aspects, Joaquin’s temperament is exactly like mine. We’re both extremely cautious, we both feel safest at home, both of us have the immediate tendency to reject new ideas, new people, new experiences. The difference is: My “more mature” brain has learned to temper these reactions down (a little bit), but in him, they come out straight and pure, with tons of tears and screams, and they limit my life, and they bring all this unwanted attention to me (when we are with other people), and they’re completely impossible to negotiate with.

    I doubt that as a baby I was as “high-needs” as Joaquin is (I don’t think my parents would’ve put up with it), but somehow I grew to become this, and passed it to my baby, and now I have to see myself in him, and deal with it. That’s perhaps one more of the ways how becoming a parent makes you grow, and become a better version of yourself.

    Very wise remarks!… With that depth of perspective, you probably would make a very good mom too ;)

  3. On , Jennifer wrote:

    LOL… Umm… I’m glad I don’t have kids, actually. I mean, there are fleeting moments when I think, “aww… that kid is so cute, I wouldn’t mind one” (like my niece and nephews). But, ‘fleeting’ is the operative word. My patience level? Very low. I mean, I can hardly manage my two dogs. And, my older one is like your boy in a lot of respects, and it drives me insane! For example, he’ll whine and stare at me and beg and act like I’m not devoting enough of my attention to him, EVEN WHILE I’M GIVING HIM ATTENTION. And, he’s the sort that wants to play, but then always runs off with the toy so you can’t play. So, as frustrated as I get with that? noooo kiddos :)

    I’m glad you enjoyed my comments. Every time I read your posts about Joaquin, I grin thinking he sounds so much like you.

    BTW… you were in Texas and didn’t call??????? Harumph

  4. On , Ria wrote:

    Hi Maria,
    I’m back into ciberspace and just read your post. I had my struggles with Pelle, on quite a different level. Pelle is a lovely boy, but a short year ago the nurse at a child centre we have to attend for a vacination told me his behaviour was very young, compared to the other todders she frequently sees. I couldn’t believe her! My son, lacking behind?! I was angry at her and felt very sad. And that remark started a series of very severe worries. About the future, him maybe being handicapted and not being able to attend a regular school. His teacher at the toddlers playgroup noticed him not interfering with the other children, so that added to my concern.

    The past month, my worries came and went, came and went. Every other toddler I saw seemed so much more mature.

    Now I can let go. One of the things I decided for myself was to stop comparing. Because I’m biased and it doesn’t do anyone any good. I use more mental tacticks I learned myself throughout the years, like meditation and have faith in the flow of life.

    And thus we strugle as parents. And although I sometimes wish I learned every lesson in life, this is another path we have to take. I hope you’ll find support, soon.

    Best wishes, Ria

  5. On , Maria wrote:

    Thank you Ria!
    By the way, I read about your mom’s accident. Hope she’s doing well…

    Yes. I’m totally with you on this. I have also decided to stop comparing my child to other children. You keep reading about how every kid develops at a different pace, and yet, it’s hard to stop yourself from noticing all the little things that other children seem to do “better” than your child. And some times, you forget all the wonderful things he does, perhaps even better than the other kids.

    For instance, since I wrote this, I’ve become more aware of the fact that Joaquin is really not a difficult child. He is an angel at home. He’s very manageable. He just seems to be more challenging (to me) on social situations. And guess what: So am I. The difference is I’m older and have learned a little more, and can control my reactions better than him. But it is having realized that he is a pure straight carbon copy of me on this particular aspect that has made me become a lot more patient with him. I’m also reading a book that classifies kids in three groups: easy–going, shy, and spirited. Joaquin fits a lot of the shy description. And I fit it totally.

    I’m sorry to hear that you have struggled with Pelle too. You are the person that knows him best. And I am the person that knows Joaquin best. A nurse who only sees your child for a few minutes while giving him his shots, and his teacher at the toddlers group… they all see just a little bit of him. They probably miss the big picture that only you see. They miss all the other ways in which Pelle has developed above other children. And they may misjudge him.

    I have also thought I’d like to practice meditation to help my mind stop the chattering of silly thoughts. To help me cope better with the struggles, and flow easier with life and motherhood after 35. It’s good to know that it has helped you. I just need to really commit to it. I always get a little lazy to try.

  6. On , Amy wrote:

    We have the same child. This morning Daddy has her out for a quick errand – “activity time 1” as I call it, which will inevitably be followed by “activity time 2, 3, and 4” – so that I can actually get in the shower and shave my armpits. “High-need” has described my daughter from day one. The only newborn who angrily unswaddled herself in the hospital nursery, she was mad as heck that she couldn’t crawl, walk, or do advanced Calculus in the first 24 hours of her life. She worked tirelessly on rolling over until she did it. Once that was accomplished, it wasn’t enough. She had to roll the other direction. My family and I remember (now fondly, then not-so-fondly) the day she chose to roll from back to tummy. She got up that morning (about four months old) and got on the floor and worked on that skill until 4:00 pm that afternoon. She did not rest, she did not want to eat, she wanted nothing more than to accomplish what her mind was set on. If asked to describe her in one word, it would be “driven.” Separation anxiety is intense right now. Every word I read in your blog applies to my child, too. I wake up every morning and pray to be patient and loving. I use positive adjectives to describe her as much as I can. I know she will be an amazing adult. But right now, at 23 months, it’s just plain tough. My husband jokes that she doesn’t just want to sit in my lap or be held all day, she wants to crawl back into my body. I’m sorry to tell her that’s not possible. She thrives on strenuous physical activity, so she’s lucky she has an energetic mommy who takes her out, takes her swimming, lets her push the cart at Target, lets her climb on playground equipment to her heart’s content. The thing is, her heart is not content, it seems. If there is a slide larger than the one she’s on, she must slide on that one. If she has accomplished a skill, she must move on to something harder. If she gets a new toy (never really “played” with toys anyway) and figures out how it works and how it’s put together, she’s done with it. New books are great until they’re read a couple times, and then that’s the end of that. Sitting still for pictures is laughable, going out for meals is a crazy idea, and I always feel the same old feeling like, “It’s always MY child” who’s doing ___. It’s always my child who’s screaming while others are playing nicely. It’s always my child who’s discontented. What’s amazing is how smart she is and how happy she is when her intelligence is fed enough. If I can only keep her moving, taught, and stimulated, we have great days. But as you said, I accomplish nothing in a day’s time. Cooking or laundry or emails or anything that I need to do has to wait. She demands all my attention.

    Anyway, I could go on, but just know that I am living your life. I only read this one entry, so I don’t know the whole story about your child, but it was like everything you wrote came from me and my life. Thanks for sharing. Enjoy the journey if you can!

  7. On , Maria wrote:

    Hi Amy. So nice to meet you!

    Yes. It does sound like your daughter and Joaquin have a lot in common. So, since you’ve taken the time to let me know about you, I think it’s only fair that I tell you how the story evolved for us, which doesn’t mean it’s the same way how it will evolve for you, but I believe in synchronicity, and energy, and a lot of spiritual stuff that tells me, I should tell you right now this… Just in case…

    All the challenging behaviors I described about Joaquin made complete sense finally when I realized that he was developing autism. Yes. Joaquin has been diagnosed in the Autism spectrum. So has the son of my friend Ria, who also commented on this post before she learned about her son’s autism.

    Now, if reading this scares the hell out of you because somehow you have sensed that your daughter is “special” in a way that worries you, I encourage you to do some research and not dwell on the “she’ll grow out of this”. Not out of fear, but because the sooner you know (if there is something going on), the sooner you’ll learn how you can help her best, and the sooner you’ll move from tough life to awesome life. I used to think that all these things Joaquin was doing were part of his personality. And they may well be. But they also map as symptoms of Autism and he needed a change of gears on my part and his environment.

    And just in case that the word autism (which I’m not saying applies to your daughter) scares you, I’ll say this with every piece of truth I have in my self… Autism is curable, and if you are one of the lucky winners of this lotto (which I realize doesn’t sound lucky at all right now for you), the gift is that not only is my son recovering from the disability aspects from it and developing in the most amazing – yet atypical way, but also I AM healing spiritually in a way I didn’t even know I needed. Today, and because of my son’s autism, I am walking a path I sensed I wanted to walk as a child but life as a young adult distracted me from it. A path towards joy, love, consciousness, and happiness.

    I am enjoying this journey most days. And on those days that I don’t, I am starting to learn why, and how those days are wonderful opportunities for me to grow more. I still resist them sometimes, but I’m learning.

    My niece was also very high-needs as a child, and it turns out that she is not autistic or Asperger’s (as far as they know without a formal diagnosis), but she is considered “talented and gifted” (i.e. super smart). So this is another possibility. Either way, both of these types of children thrive in the same environment: Acceptance, love, and a lot of attention and dedication. A mommy commitment way higher than you probably signed up for. But if this is how your case turns out, I’ll just say right now that you sound like you already have everything it takes. It may sound difficult (and it can be, when you are unhappy), but the journey is amazing and surprisingly easy at the times when you flow with it and trust that everything is happening perfectly, at the perfect pace, for a perfect reason.

    I wish you the best of luck and salute you as a fellow mother of a high-needs child. Autism or not, your daughter is truly special, and so are you since you are her mother.