Don’t Fence Me In


I don’t know if this is unusual or not, but I can pinpoint the exact lowest point in all of the ups and downs Clay, his brother, my wife and I have faced together.

No, it wasn’t the News Year’s Eve when a doctor decided a new drug treatment was just the thing for Clay, and he wound up literally hanging from the ceiling – ripping a ceiling fan out by the roots.

No, it wasn’t when Clay’s psychiatrist had to meet with us in the office parking lot because we couldn’t get the little guy into a confined area. (Looking at our haggard faces under the street lights, the doctor actually waived his fee so that we could spend the money on a sitter and take a night off – but that is a story for another time.)

The precise lowest moment occurred midway through a boiling afternoon in August about four years ago. We had no power at our house – no use of the stove, no microwave, no water from the well, no air conditioning. Clay was around 13 – in the throws of puberty. If you listened closely, you could almost hear his hormones humming like 10,000 bees playing the harmonica. He would pull his clothes off. We would put them back on. He would pull them off. We would put them back on. That was how we had spent the morning. Sweating. Hungry. On edge. Clay wailing and weaving through the house, pulling spreads off of beds. Clearing counters and book shelves. Emptying his juice cup on the floor. By the afternoon, he started taking his act out the back door.

We didn’t have a fenced backyard, so, inevitably the lowest moment arrived. I can still see it in slow motion. Clay streaking across the front lawn, naked as the day he was born, me in pursuit, sweat dripping down my forehead, frustration and anger caught in my throat, trying to corral him back inside the overheated house and into some clothes. Knowing that it would just start all over again. Fearing that this was how we were going to spend the next 10 years.

That was “the moment.”

It got better from there. We dropped Clay’s older brother at my parents later that afternoon for a sleepover – to give him a break. Mercifully, my sister let us crash her pool for a couple of hours, which calmed the little guy down for awhile. A year or so later, when we could afford it, we fenced in our backyard. And the moment was behind us.

Still, that was the day – the moment – that bubbled up and stuck in my throat when Clay typed last week that he didn’t want to be fenced in the backyard anymore.

It was the Sunday afternoon before Memorial Day, sunny and warm. My wife sat him down for a typing session, and this is what came out:

“please unlock the gate so i can just play on the other side. i like the other side because it is peaceful. let me have my freedom.”

Clay likes to sit on the step in the front of the house, which we let him do when he is waiting for his bus in the morning. But the rest of the time, he is confined to the backyard. Why? Because he wanders to our neighbors’ house, past them to a nearby creek, sometimes across the street – oblivious to traffic. We put a bicycle lock on the gate, because Clay had figured out how to open it, and we would find him three houses away after a heart-pounding search. More than once lately, I’ve seen him standing at the gate, brown eyes following me, when I was heading to the car or taking a walk with the dog.

“maybe i get stimmy but i have feelings,” he typed. Jean Valjean couldn’t have said it better.

“I totally understand,” my wife typed. “I just don’t want you leaving our property. What if you go past the creek and get lost? You used to do that. I just want you to stay safe. If you stay on our land, I will unlock the gate.”

“lets give it try,” he responded.

So they did, with Clay exploring the front of the house while my wife did some overdue weeding.

“How was that?”

“great. thanks mom. really happy.”

Then, they went to the backyard, but left the gate unlocked. Sure enough, Clay bolted down the hill to the house next door, where our neighbor Frank was watching television on his screened porch. Frank, who retired 20 years ago and used to offer biscuits to our dogs when they were out front in the pre-fence days, was happy to have a visitor. Clay was thrilled to be visiting, and sat in Frank’s chair holding the remote.

“love you for letting me have my freedom. lets try again after dinner. horray for frank. he is a nice man. great neighbor.”

After dinner it was my turn. After chasing Clay down to Frank’s house again, and coaxing him back up the hill with visions of “the moment” clutching at my stomach, I knew leaving the gate unlocked was not the answer. It is one of those dilemmas parents face.

How do you balance the safety of your child against the need to give them space? How do you balance your sanity (or the need to just sit down and rest for a few minutes) against your child’s need to explore the world on his or her own? It hits home even harder when your child can’t safely be left alone.

Nearly every closet in our house has a lock of some sort. We’ve rigged extra barriers on the external doors. We have a lock on the refrigerator and the pantry because, otherwise, the little fellow would make an enormous mess. At the age of 17, Clay has to ask permission for access to food – which he usually does by handing one of us a cup or just pulling us by the arm toward the refrigerator. It isn’t a safety issue. It is a sanity issue. He understands, but hates being treated like a child. We know it is necessary, but hate the message it sends about trust. About his maturity and intelligence. We all would prefer to leave the refrigerator unlocked, but it doesn’t make sense. Not yet. The locked gate in the backyard goes beyond that.

To Clay it feels like Alcatraz. To us, it is the only safe approach.

But maybe there was a way to give Clay his freedom without turning into Sisyphus – hauling him back up the hill from Frank’s house all afternoon long.

Clay, my wife and I went for a walk through the neighborhood together, instead. We all got some exercise. The little guy had some freedom. And we eased our guilt over fencing in a kid who wants to roam, but clearly can’t do it on his own. May be a new family ritual.

Now I’m just worried that Frank won’t have any visitors.

Surveying the free world

Surveying the free world

  1. #1 by Jonathan on June 6, 2013 - 8:39 am

    I am so glad you are writing again!

    • #2 by Larry Blumenthal on June 6, 2013 - 1:35 pm

      Thanks. Feels good to be back.

  2. #3 by Donna on June 6, 2013 - 8:53 am

    I love reading about Clay, Thank you so much for sharing your sometimes difficult but always WONDERFUL life with Clay!

  3. #4 by Lynn on June 6, 2013 - 9:42 am

    tough sitiuation…

    keeping one’s kid safe, is tough.

    Would a largish dog, trained to keep an eye on Clay, be helpful?

    is it possible Clay might even heed the urgings of a dog? If you got it as a pup, Clay might really bond with the dog, and you could tell Clay he is responsible to keep the dog safe, and teach the dog he is responsible for Clay.

    seen some amazing stuff with dogs…(Bernese Mountain Dogs)

    • #5 by Larry Blumenthal on June 6, 2013 - 1:37 pm

      It’s an interesting suggestion, Lynn. We’ve done some research into that. It is worth looking at more closely.

  4. #6 by The Domestic Goddess on June 6, 2013 - 9:47 am

    I’m in the middle of this myself. Though he’s only ten, the gates are locked, the doors are locked, the cabinets are locked…everything is locked. Because we want him to be safe. And though he JUST started using communication software, his thoughts are clear. He doesn’t want to be fenced in, either. He wants his freedom. And we try to give him as much as we can. But we need him to be safe. Such a conundrum.

    • #7 by Larry Blumenthal on June 6, 2013 - 1:40 pm

      It gets better. These guys seem to calm down as the years go by. One thing we have done for Clay is give him access to one food cabinet, which we stock with chips and pretzels and other munchies. He’s in there all the time. His personal stash. Thanks for sharing your thoughts and for your blog. Great stuff.

  5. #8 by Sara on June 6, 2013 - 10:18 am

    We have this issue at night, as well, and have had to resort to locking our son in his room at night. We had taken the locks off for a long time and thought things were going well… then he started scaling the cabinets/shelves at night, playing in the kitchen, etc. I was so worried that he’d hurt himself, I just didn’t know what else to do.

    • #9 by Larry Blumenthal on June 6, 2013 - 1:43 pm

      It’s tough. Guilt vs. safety. I remember reading about one man on “vacation” who had to sleep in a chair propped against the hotel room door to make sure his son didn’t leave the room at night. You’ll figure it out. And it does get easier.

  6. #10 by Linda L. Kuepper on June 7, 2013 - 9:59 am

    Never a dull moment is there!!! LOL! Enjoyed your blog! Linda Kuepper Co-Founder & CEO The Autism Cares Foundation P.O. Box 180 Richboro, PA 18954 (215) 559-CARE (2273)


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