"I want chicken nuggets," my 11-year-old said.
His voice grew louder: "I want chicken nuggets."
"Sweetie, can you find something else?"
"No. Chicken nuggets."
"Try a hamburger," I said, placing it on his tray. He tossed it back. He had gone too long without eating.
"Let's get some juice," I said.
"I don't want juice!" he wailed.
I grabbed some orange juice. The cafeteria was noisy and filled with people. Several families were logjammed behind us. My husband steered us over to the cashier to pay. At the register, my son kicked my foot hard. "I want chicken nuggets," he said through gritted teeth.
"Let's go sit down," I suggested.
"No! Gimme nuggets!" he screamed, kicking my foot harder. The cashier watched us, wide-eyed, while my husband paid for lunch. My husband and I looked at each other and exchanged weary half-smiles.
I swept my son to a table in a quiet corner. He kicked the chair to one side and plopped down heavily in it.
"I want chicken nuggets!" he cried, tears spilling down his face. He was stuck, unable to shake the idea of those darn chicken nuggets.
"I know," I said as I lifted the juice to his lips, and he took a few sips. Then I whispered, "Wanna hug?" He nodded and leaned on me, his body limp. I took him into my arms while we waited for his brain to settle down enough for him to begin thinking coherently again. After a long silence, he whimpered, "I'm sorry, Mama." I sighed, feeling relieved that this was not one of his really terrible blowups.
My son's brain is wired differently. He has trouble shifting to new thoughts or activities, and he is often flooded with sensory information. The sights and sounds of the world rush toward him like an unstoppable wave. My son has Asperger's syndrome, a neurobiological disorder that is often referred to as "high-functioning" autism.
It is stressful enough to be in public and watch my bright, gentle son transform into Mr. Hyde. The disapproving stares from onlookers only make me feel worse. I imagine they think I'm a really crummy parent, letting my child behave that way.
Some strangers, seeing my struggle, offer me tips: "Be more consistent." "You've got to show him who's boss."
Others just glare at me for allowing my son to be so disruptive.
After years of studying stacks of parenting books; working with psychotherapists, pediatricians and specialists; and dutifully trying all sorts of techniques, I have learned one simple truth: Compassion is the most powerful parenting tool I possess. Armed with this, I see my child's strengths and needs in a way that makes it possible for us to move forward.
We won't get stuck on those darn chicken nuggets.
Hori, a mother, writer and educational therapist in private practice, lives in Pasadena and teaches students who have learning disabilities.