Wednesday, October 25, 2000

Give him the fingers

“Send in the wet wipes!”

The note I’d been dreading since school began finally came home last week. My son’s aide wanted wet wipes, and that could only mean one thing: His finger-sucking had finally ticked someone off. When that happened last year, we found that wiping his fingers with wet wipes cut the habit off cold. He couldn’t stand the smell. The mere mention of wet wipes would cause him to pull his fingers away.

I had argued against cutting his finger habit off because it was his one quiet comfort activity, immensely preferable to jumping and shouting and banging his head against the wall. I had predicted that they would see an increase in these more disruptive habits if they made him stop sucking. I was wrong. There were no cataclysmic consequences. But his overall frustration level seemed to increase. His meltdown point came sooner. His scores on in-class tests plummeted, even though we all agreed he knew his stuff. Everyone felt it had been a successful behavior modification, but to me it seemed a clear case of putting behavior management above learning. I expect better from a special-ed class.

So this year, when he was in a class with children closer to his age and behavior level, when he had a teacher who did her master’s thesis on fetal-alcohol syndrome, when he had an occupational therapist and a speech therapist who were both trained in sensory-integration techniques, when he seemed comfortable and capable in his schoolwork, and when I didn’t get daily admonisments about his behavior, I had high hopes--perhaps these people would get it. Perhaps they would see that something that helps him sit and pay attention is not something to be toyed with. Perhaps the finger-sucking (which he had resumed over the summer, because his lazy bad mother didn’t mind it) would be no big deal.

But now, here comes the note. And Mama slips into full battle gear. I e-mailed the teacher. I buttonholed her when I dropped him off the next morning. I had her call me at her break time. And I expressed the notion that if our goal is to get him to fully function in class, we ought not to remove something that successfully helps him do that.

The teacher agreed, as is wise to do when you’re talking to a crazy person. And she explained her concerns: The other kids don’t like being touched by my boy’s spit-covered hands, and the nurse is concerned about germs. It’s a clear case of individual vs. group rights; I acknowledge the teacher’s responsibility to the group, she acknowledges my defensiveness of the individual, and that puts us at an impasse. We’ve left it that she will check with the sensory-integration experts on her team and try to come up with an alternative to finger-sucking that will give my son the input he needs but not gross out the class. For now, no wet wipes. But the time may come.

Since it is an individual-rights issue, maybe I should just demand that a finger-sucking area could be apportioned off at the school, and every so often he can go off to suck, perhaps in the company of a teacher who needs a smoke. Bad habits aren’t that easily broken.

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