“Where is my white computer? Did it go to the Goodwill?”
On Easter Sunday this year I came home at 8:30 p.m. to find my home had been burglarized.
My son who is 14 entered the house first, followed by my 16-year-old daughter. She immediately turned around and ran out of the house while Arthur stood frozen in the middle of the living room.
If you’ve ever been a victim of this disturbing crime, you know the initial feelings of shock, anger, fear, helplessness, and disgust.
Arthur has autism and coming home to this kind of chaos was nothing short of devastating for him.
Every room was ransacked. Picture this: furniture overturned and broken, mattresses pulled off their frames, contents of every drawer and cabinet scattered all over, half-eaten food (yes, our Easter candy) thrown on the floor. Worst of all, all of our electronics were gone, including Arthur’s beloved laptop computer. Even our bed sheets were taken to carry our stolen items out of the house, reminding me of the Grinch who Stole Christmas.
I was upset that our home was turned upside down but both my daughter (who stayed outside peering through the front window) and I knew that the major concern at that moment was Arthur and how he was going to react.
Like many kids with autism, Arthur does not do well with change. He requires full support with even minor transitions such as leaving the house, bed time, or quitting a preferred activity. We have to use warnings, countdowns, timers, reinforcers, and lots of visual support to help Arthur prepare for change.
Arthur also has a powerfully rigid need for things to remain the same. His insistence on sameness meant that our house started to resemble a museum with everything just so. There were months where we couldn’t move anything, not a lamp, or couch, or dusty vase – not even a sticker on his bedroom wall. If we moved it slightly, he would notice and return it to the exact spot. If we persisted with the change (which we did as part of his “move it / change it” program), he’d have a significant melt down.
I felt such dissonance as I looked at the contents of my home toppled, crooked, broken and bent. I had a revelation…is this what Arthur feels all the time? What a dreadful sensation.
But there was no time for reflection. Arthur began to scream, run, kick, punch, sob, and bolt out the door. My son is minimally verbal, but he managed to bellow these words throughout our home and the neighborhood:
“Where’s my white computer?”
“Where’s my white computer?”
“Where’s my white computer?”
There was chaos for 30 minutes as Arthur ran up and down the sidewalk screaming. We called the police (along with a few neighbors no doubt) and made attempts to calm him down. His dad got him in the van and quickly removed him from this confusing scene of cops at his house, his mom crying, neighbors in the street in their pajamas, and his missing white computer.
With the help and guidance from Arthur’s behavioral consultant, we have strategies we use with Arthur during significant meltdowns but there was no program for home burglary so I went with tactics that have worked in the past.
This was our approach with Arthur. Of course, this might not work with every child with autism.
- I didn’t have him back in the house until it was cleaned up, albeit it did resemble someone who was missing several front teeth. Arthur noticed the missing items of course and it was very uncomfortable for him.
- When Arthur was calm and ready for answers, I went with my gut and told him the truth. The house was burglarized which meant someone took some of our stuff, including his computer. I worried this would re-traumatize him or cause more anxiety but he listened and even had a few simple questions (Where is my white computer? Did it go to the Goodwill?). I said I didn’t know but we were going to replace the items. “Get new ones” was all I heard for several weeks.
- I let him know the house was safer. We changed the locks and put new locks in the windows. I did not show him the locks as Arthur would perseverate on this so I just stuck with “the house is safer”.
- It took weeks to replace our stolen goods so I created a social story (below) which we reviewed several times a day to help him understand what happened and what we were doing about it. It included words he was hearing but did not know the meaning. If Arthur started perseverating on this social story, which he will sometimes do with negative or uncomfortable topics, we would put it away for awhile.
- We informed school staff in anticipation that this would affect his mood and ability to focus at school. We provided his teacher with a copy of the social story.
- Demands were decreased at home and school as, like the rest of his family, Arthur was under stress and needed some TLC.
- I accepted help. The distress caused by total strangers in our home – the loss of precious items, the feeling of being unsafe, the hassle of replacing things, the instability, meltdowns, and anxiety this caused my son – was overwhelming. It was bigger than me. So when friends, coworkers, and family offered to help, I was deeply touched by the generosity and kindness—and I said yes.
The dust has settled. Items have been replaced. We feel safer in our home. Arthur does not use the social story any more. He’s bounced back but sometimes I catch him going to the place we kept his old computer. He looks as sad and empty as anyone who has been robbed of his treasures. There is no way to make that better.
Arthur’s way of making peace with the unexplainable is this: “It’s at the Goodwill.”
What happened to my computer?
Someone broke the window and came inside the house.
They took things from our house.
People that take stuff that don’t belong to them are called robbers.
They took Arthur’s white computer.
The police came to the house to try to help us find out where our stuff went.
The police came to our house to help.
Where did all our stuff go?
Where did Arthur’s white computer go?
We don’t know where our stuff went. It’s gone.
We will get a new (list items here).
We will get a new computer for Arthur.
When people take stuff from my house it makes me feel:
When I feel these feelings I can:
List strategies that calm your child
- take a break
- jump on the trampoline
- go for a walk
- chew gum
- count to 10
- take deep breaths
- ask for my putty
A friendly reminder that if you don’t have renter’s insurance, now might be a good time to get it.
Thanks for writing this, Katrina! Such a personal and frustrating situation for you, but I think it REALLY helps to have such a concrete and real life examples of what you/parents can do to support their children in such challenging and overwhelming times.
Thank you for this great primer for how to deal with unexpected change! Even for less invasive and distrubing events, these are helpful ideas.
Sorry that your family had this experience; thank you for making the best of it by allowing us to learn from it.