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Finding calm in the storm: Saving my family from the chaos of autism

Tara Kennedy-Kline

Tara Kennedy-Kline, her husband, Chris Kline, and their sons Alex (left) and Max enjoy family time more since a therapist helped bring calm to their home.

Living with an autistic child can leave an entire family walking on eggshells. Ten-year-old Alex Kline’s struggle with a form of autism called Asperger’s syndrome has consumed his entire family. His parents Tara Kennedy-Kline and Chris Kline decided to get help. A behavior consultant spent a week in their home to help them regain control. There are fewer tears around the house now, Tara Kennedy-Kline writes, but, even more important, there are more smiles.

By Tara Kennedy-Kline, special to TODAY Moms

As a mom, entrepreneur, author and coach, I have always tried to “manage” my family to keep things under control. 

As part of my management strategy, we have four strict family pillars: Be respectful, be gentle, be honest and be patient. Those are the standard for our entire family -- except for my 10-year-old son, Alex.  Alex has Asperger’s syndrome, so he’s always been given a bit more “slack.” 

Alex was becoming more violent, dismissive, rude and lazy. My husband, Chris, and I clashed over how to deal with it. My older son, Max, 12, was beyond frustrated. He did all the chores and struggled with having friends over.

My “slack” was tearing our family apart. 

Then, right after I received a call from the school that Alex had barricaded himself in the classroom after biting another child at recess, I got an e-mail reply from a questionnaire I had filled out regarding a new therapy called RES-Q through a group called Autism Partnership. We would be required to open our home to one of their therapists for one week and expect miracles. Believing that everything happens for a reason, I was in!

When our therapist, Lety, arrived, I was scared to death. It wasn’t so much what we had to do, but rather the knowledge that I had spent 10 years getting this boy to where he is today. How were we going to change that in a week and could we handle it?

After a day of observation, Lety told us how Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA) could help us.  The process itself seemed simple enough.

“Alex’s only responsibility is to comply with anything and everything he is asked to do, when he is asked to do it, and when he does, he is rewarded,” she explained.

For instance, Alex would get tickets he could cash in for special rewards, like computer time, when he did his chores.

Wow! Really? That’s it? For the first time in years, my husband and I were on the exact same page and ready to get started.

After day one, we weren’t so sure anymore. We learned pretty quickly that Alex was not so willing to accept a change in his cushy routine of video games, pajamas and the occasional dictation of homework to mom. He'd never had to get himself dressed, ask permission for anything, do a chore or write a book report. We had never pushed him. We did everything for him to avoid the meltdowns and keep the peace -- and he liked it that way. 

But Lety immediately began modeling for us the process that would change our life completely.

That week was exhausting and exhilarating all at the same time. We ricocheted from super happy highs to infuriating two-hour tantrums to deep breathing de-escalations! Every day brought as many new struggles as it did successes. 

There were times when we were standing in the freezing cold in our bare feet while Alex screamed from inside our car: “Get away from me! I hate you! Leave me alone! I don’t want your $%!@ tickets!” In those moments, I really did want to stop, to leave him alone and bring back the peace.  But a few hours later, when we were all playing a board game and Alex wasn’t throwing the play money across the room or cursing at his brother for skipping a space, I knew we were doing the right thing and our persistence was paying off.

During our week together with Lety, we each learned valuable techniques, practices and skills to take with us for life.  We learned that we do not have to yell to make a point and when we make a request, that request needs to be honored before we move on to anything else. 

Today, three weeks after Lety has gone, Alex is waking up to his own alarm clock, he gets himself dressed, makes his bed, feeds his dogs. He asks what he can do to earn time on the computer, does his own homework and is completing his second book report in his own handwriting. 

Although those are all great milestones and big steps forward for Alex, I think the greatest reward is that not one person in our home has raised their voice in almost a month. We all feel honored and respected. And as much as we have always loved each other, we now enjoy being with each other, too!

Click here for more information about Autism Partnership.