Michael has reached the ripe old age of 18, which is incredible to me. It seems like it was only a few years ago that he was running around the house pouring perfume on his head, cheating at Hungry Hungry Hippos or cutting up placemats.
He's in his senior year of high school, has a bank account, and he's learning to drive.
But, being a kid on the spectrum means he's got some extra challenges.
Some of them are easily blended into the typical teenage boy behavior gamut, such as lack of attention to anything that doesn't appear on a screen, being constantly hungry, and "forgetting" to do his regular chores. Every parent battles those problems.
But he also adds in a healthy dose of obsessive compulsive disorder.
His current obsession is our cats, and their "safety". By this I mean whether they are inside or outside of our house.
Before I delve into this too far, let me make it clear: our intention was never to have outdoor cats, but during our home remodel project, which lasted eight weeks, there were walls and doorways missing for extended periods of time. There was simply no way to reliably keep them inside and still go about our daily business. Once they got a taste of the big wide world out there, it was useless to try to contain them. Fortunately they know where their meals come from, and they stick close to home.
However, in spite of their habits of roaming during the cool hours of the morning and returning each night before supper, Michael insists he has to keep track of them, and becomes incredibly worried to the point of near panic if one or the other goes missing for what he feels is an extended period. Like, two minutes.
It does no good to talk to him about it. Reassurances fall on deaf ears. Repeatedly pointing out the evidence that the cats return to us EVERY SINGLE NIGHT is useless.
Each morning, either his mom or I will let the cats out. They're practically clawing through the sliding glass doors at this point, and shoot out of the door like rockets once the crack is wide enough to admit a slightly chunky cat body.
Following directly on their heels will be Michael. He needs to be right with them at all times to know where they're going and what they're doing. And if one or the other climbs a fence to visit a neighbor's yard, Michael will be plastered to our side of the fence making kissy noises hoping to lure it back.
Every day this summer, you can find Michael outside - either in front or back - walking around stalking the cats. Some neighbors have been suspicious of the apparently aimless teenager walking back and forth along the sidewalks, and he has been confronted on occasion by a neighbor wondering who he was and what he's doing.
I've reminded him that at 18, he's now responsible for his own actions, and if for some reason a neighbor gets concerned and calls the police on him, he's going to have to talk his way out of it himself.
But again - all of my warnings, advice, reassurances and admonishments are unheeded.
He insists that the only way to keep the cats safe during the day is to follow them and monitor their activity.
He can only relax and return to his normal, cheerful, talkative self once the sun starts going down and we bring the cats in for their evening meal. With the cats in and their doors locked, he calms down.
This is what OCD does to a person. An otherwise reasonable, rational person will throw logic, facts and evidence - despite the depth and repeatability - out the window if that person has determined in their mind that the feeling is more reliable.
By this point the groove is cut very deep. He is entrenched in his routine. His habits and rituals are strong and he shows absolutely no desire to break free.
Our task is to try to break the ritual and thus disrupt the habit. One way is to vary the time each morning the cats go out. One of his OCD ritualistic behaviors centers around being exact with time. If the cats don't go out at exactly the same time each day, this confuses the OCD process.
Another way to break the ritual is through distraction or removal. We get him involved in something else (an extra chore or helping a parent with something) to distract him from his self-appointed duties. This shows the OCD that it is not in control.
School will be starting up soon, and he'll be forced to be away from the roaming cats for hours each day during the week. I know he won't like that; it's bound to cause anxiety. This can be therapeutic, though, for the same reasons as above: it breaks the ritual.
He's crafted a strong and harsh prison for himself, but he holds the key. He's the only one who does. The walls and bars are impenetrable from the outside.
My prayer is that he will soon decide he's had enough of it.