Recently, we were given a free Goally, a new device that is supposed to aid children with autism follow routines, stay on task during those routines, track behaviors, and earn rewards. Kids earn points for anything you choose: tasks in a routine, completing a routine, showing good behavior. Undesirable behaviors deduct points. There's a reward section with a ton of pre-loaded rewards, but you can add your own as well, and you can set the number of points each reward is worth.
I finally got everything all set up and presented it to my son after dinner. He knew it was coming and kind of knew what it was, but as I began walking him through the routines and rewards, he began to get anxious. Everything got worse as I went over what was expected of him, what his rewards would be for displaying what the device calls "Desirable Behaviors,” and what the consequences would be for "Undesirable Behaviors."
I presented this device to my son as a sort of at-home therapy. He sees a therapist once a week, and I told him that the Goally will help us better track and stay on top of his therapy goals (hence the name “Goally"). But my son doesn't think of it that way. He thinks of it as something to keep track of all his wrong-doing and hold him accountable. He already feels overwhelmed, always trying to do the right thing, even when he can't help but do the "undesirable" thing. And now here is this always-present device using cute icons to show just how far he still has to go, even after all the work he's done in therapy.
"How come I'm the only one with a Goally?” he asked. “How come I'm the only one with this device to help me work on all the bad things I do? Everyone sins. Everyone does wrong. No one else has to see what they do wrong all day long, all the time. This is only going to show me that I still have SO MUCH to do, and there's just no way I can do it. I can't do all of this." He talked about the anxiety he felt over this device, that he has to make sure never he makes any wrong moves or says the wrong thing, because he'll lose points.
His comments made me look at the Goally from a different perspective. Honestly? I feel conflicted. I feel convicted. For kids with autism, they have to go to therapy to learn things that many others already know how to do. For most kids, it's simply a matter of choosing whether or not to do the right thing, like choosing not to yell at someone when you’re upset, or choosing to not talk back to your parents. For everyone else, consequences are less literal, less black and white. Their rewards account balance doesn’t go down because they lost their temper. Sometimes natural consequences motivate them to stay the course, or choose better next time. But for kids like mine, choosing the right thing isn't always an option. He can't always tell himself to breathe first when he gets angry. He doesn't know he's getting angry until he's already exploding and yelling. It happens so fast! He doesn't pick up on the clues in his own body, so it's super hard for him to avoid doing something “bad.”
He said, "I'm expected to be perfect all the time. No one else loses points for banging their fist, or yelling at the video game. So I'm just never supposed to express my anger? I'm never supposed to show that I'm mad? I have feelings! How am I supposed to get emotions out if everything I do means losing points and rewards?"
I tried explaining that there are appropriate ways to express frustration and anger. The Goally is supposed to help him find a better way. There are certain expressions of anger that are wrong for everyone; some are even illegal. We can't physically hurt someone because they made us really really mad, we can't damage someone's property or steal. There are lots of "can'ts" in our world. And my heart hurts because it seems like he feels the weight of it all, and the accountability of it all is too much to bear.
Yes, his Goally will help my son be more aware of himself, his actions and words, so he can communicate better, conduct himself in socially acceptable ways with others, and as a believer, become more Christ-like. These are the goals for my son.
But his comments struck me on a deeply personal level, too. I'm not off the hook just because I'm a neurotypical person. More than the frustration my son feels with therapies and tools to make his life better, I felt like this Goally was a sanctification device that maybe we should all use. What desirable behaviors does the Lord want me to display more? What undesirable behaviors does He want me to stop? I have a lot of problems that I need to work on, but no one is forcing me to track them all on my phone—although I'm positive there's an app for that! My patience wears thin—very thin—a lot. That's "undesirable behavior." My anger is expressed in "undesirable" ways sometimes. I don't always say and do things the way I should.
I’m being perfected by the One who is perfect in my stead.
My Heavenly Father is sanctifying me, perfecting me until the day of Christ Jesus. I don't have a device, but I do have the Holy Spirit who lives in me, guiding me into all truth. If I am to be a good mother to my son and a good role model for him to imitate, I must choose to live how God desires for me to live. Like my son, how often am I overwhelmed with how far I still have to go? How often am I overcome with grief over my own sin? Perhaps not as much as I should be.
How thankful I am for the grace of God. He is so loving and patient with me as I mess up, time and time again. Am I loving and patient when my son falls short, especially in situations he is mentally and physically unable to control? It's difficult to maintain patience and compassion so often, for a child struggling hard with his own goals. But I must persevere. I must continue to love when I don't feel like it. I must continue to take a deep breath and speak calmly regardless of the frustration I feel. I must take care to lovingly guide him to good choices and relish in doling out well-earned rewards. I must also lovingly talk through poor choices, and allow consequences for those choices, because that's how life works. I must help my son understand the grace of God in failure by showing him grace. I must teach him the high standards set before us with Jesus as our example.
My son is a cross-country runner. He knows well the pain of enduring a hard race to the finish. I must run this race with him; we will persevere together to finish well. I have a feeling the rewards of enduring this race will be far greater than a special trip to McDonalds.