xmlns:og='http://ogp.me/ns#' Yeah. Good Times.: "All Kids Do That" Part 13: Spitting

Saturday, March 10, 2012

"All Kids Do That" Part 13: Spitting

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Today I'm happy to be hosting Jim, who you can find on Twitter here and who blogs at Just a Lil Blog.

My computer downage has caused confusion in my head ... moreso.  Have you sent me something to post? Have I asked you to write for me? Have you offered to write for me? Please email me at jillsmo at gmail.com and tell me the deal, because I can't keep track of anything at this point, and I know there's lots more to come!

"The Spittin' Image"

The day the note came home with my three year-old daughter advising us that she had spit on a fellow classmate I was shocked. My wife told me about it when our daughter was out of earshot.

“She. . . she spit on a kid?” I asked.


“Like. . . pitooey? Or she blew a raspberry and some kid got a fleck of spit on her cheek and started crying?”

“I don’t know, Jim, it just says she spit on someone.”

We approached it very seriously, but I was pretty upset, and sort of let my temper get the better of me. “If you do it again, you’re going to get a spankin’.” She’d never been spanked before. She’d already been in tears discussing the situation with us, and this new threat sent her over the edge.

I glanced up at my wife’s raised eyebrows and thought, “Shit, this is one of those things we talk about before deciding on,” but it was too late.

We made peace with her that night. She understood the enormity of the offense but she was calm enough to snuggle and listen to her bedtime story before drifting off to sleep. We had handled the situation.

The following day a note came home with my three year-old daughter advising us that she had spit on a fellow classmate. What. The. Hell. After soul searching, discussing, googling and in all other ways researching the subject of spankings. . . I caved. We gave her a talking-to. . . we took away privileges, we promised additional repercussions for additional offenses, we expressed extreme disappointment, and. . . she never spit on anyone again.

Kids spit on kids. It’s a phase. All. . . or almost all kids do it at some point or another. And parents have to make their peace with the process just like they make their peace with the biting phase or the swearing phase or lying phase.

We handled it. We disciplined her. We triumphed.

We had five years to pat ourselves on the back for the job we did with our oldest daughter, Emma, before her autistic little sister Lily came along and started her spitting “phase”.

Before we knew what autism meant (if anyone truly knows what autism means who is not himself autistic) we noticed that what passed for kickass parenting for Emma meant little and less to Lily.

A raised voice, a stern expression, and a rigidly pointed finger were enough to reduce Emma to tears, induce heartfelt apologies, and assure practically flawless adherence to recently broken rules moving forward, but often just made Lily giggle mischievously before repeating the exact same behavior again. And again. And again.

We started spelling the word “spit” or “spitting” very early on with Lily, because even saying the word was enough to generate a face-full. When she learned that “s-p-i-t” spelled spit, we stopped referring to it at all.

Behavior is communication, and with nonverbal kids, sometimes it’s their only means of communication. And while Lily can talk, much of her speech is echolalia and spitting can serve many functions.

Spitting can satisfy a sensory need. She likes the feeling her lips make when she purses them and blows raspberries. She’s a child who is hyposensitive or sensory-seeking. She needs strong stimulation in order to really feel what’s going on in the world around her and place herself in it comfortably.

Spitting can satisfy a need for attention. Nothing whips our heads around faster than the sound of Lily spitting angrily. Blowing raspberries gets her immediate results, and “Hey daddy” has lost some of its effectiveness since she will often repeat it twenty times in a row to twenty, “What is it, Lily” responses.

Spitting can serve as an expression of anger or desire to escape. When she’s being led to the potty, she will sometimes resist. When she is being asked to try on the potty or sit still, she will often spit. “I’m mad at you,” it says.

Separating the behavior from the function is important. I don’t want to punish my daughter for satisfying a need for comfort that she’s feeling. I don’t want to stifle her ability to make herself more comfortable or more calm.

I don’t want to punish her for needing attention either, but at the same time I can’t pay attention when she uses spitting to get it, because that reinforces her understanding that spitting gets results.

I can’t allow her to escape from activities that are non-preferred due to spitting or it once more reinforces her view that she gets her way if she spits.

So what does that leave us? It leaves us with ignoring spitting when it’s used to stim, ignoring it when it’s used to gain attention, then redirecting and supplying her with alternate suggestions about more appropriate ways to seek our attention, and it leaves us with ignoring the spitting while she’s doing something she doesn’t want to do, because addressing the spitting gets her out of some other non-preferred task. It leaves us reading social stories to her daily about the appropriate uses for your “mouth” (if you’re curious: eating, breathing, talking, singing, NOT spitting), wiping our faces, and keeping our expressions blank. I don’t even blink when she spits in my face now.

She doesn’t differentiate between sick or healthy either. You’ll get the same face wash when she’s got a cold that you get when she’s healthy. She does it more when she’s tired to calm herself down, so at night, when I’m putting her to bed and our faces are six inches apart, she’ll look up at me past long lashes with her big dark eyes and spit right in my face. . . tiredly.

We advise our care givers to ignore it; to turn her so she’s facing away from them when they change her wet clothes so she’s not constantly spitting in their faces. We warn friends and family so they’re prepared.

And two years later she’s still doing it. There have been temper tantrums (mine) and embarrassing screams of rage (mine) and nose to nose confrontations, swatted bottoms, timeouts, and every other disciplinary tactic tried. And two years later she’s still doing it.

Ignoring it has given me more peace than anything else we’ve tried.And maybe (I think the data actually shows this) it’s gotten better.I think you could honestly say she spits less today than she did a year ago. And I’m convinced that it has nothing to do with any “intervention”, “strategy”, or “discipline” we’ve implemented.

All kids have phases. All kids spit. But this spitting phase isn’t one that can be disciplined away (nor in the case where she’s stimming SHOULD it be), or stern-faced out of existence the way we stern-facedly exterminated our neurotypical daughter, Emma’s spitting problem all those years ago.

It’s just not the same.