Chasing Tails

by Brenda Rothman

Jack is chasing the cats.  Again.  Sometimes, he’s looking for something to do and can’t come up with anything.  Sometimes, he’s angry.  Sometimes, his tummy hurts.  He’s feeling something that he can’t identify and he’s overwhelmed.  So he chases the cats and they run.  Immediate feedback.  He pulls their tail or squeezes them or lies down on them.  They meow.  More feedback.  When they struggle to get away or yowl, he gets giddy.  He laughs hysterically.  He gets overexcited.  He gets dizzy.  You’d think he just finished riding the best roller coaster ever.  Or bought new shoes.  On sale.  That came with a free handbag.  Heh-heh-heh-uh-hyh.

Phew.  Sorry.

So, he’s running and hitting and laughing.  Having the best time hurting the cats.  Which means he’ll become the boy who tortures animals.  Which means, of course, that he will be the next serial killer.  Dang.  There goes college.

Except it’s not true.  Screech.  He’s not having fun.  Yeah, I know he’s laughing and it looks fun.  But kids with autism have moments of dysregulation.  They hit up against a feeling, pain, emotion, or thought that overwhelms them.  And they spin out of control.  Dysregulation makes them dizzy, overexcited, and giggly.

When Jack was little and he heard someone cry on the playground, he laughed.  It wasn’t because he thought it was funny.  It wasn’t because he lacked empathy – though I’m sure doctors will tell you that.  Geez.  Helpful. Really.

No, he was scared.  Remember, this is the boy with superstrong ears.  Babies or kids crying happens suddenly, without warning.  Jack was overwhelmed.  It came out in hysterical laughter.  I’m sure those moms thought I was the world’s worst parent for not chastising him.  But ya know.  Here.  Have a brownie.  Love ya.  For real.

That giddiness when Jack is chasing the cats is the signal.  It really means I’m outta control and I can’t stop.  It means I’m too overwhelmed to communicate.  It means I’m dazed and confused.  It means I need help.

Your child is telling you, “I need you to help me calm down and regulate myself.”

I mean, that’s what autism is about, right?  It’s about overwhelming emotions.  About communication.  About dysregulation.

Imagine for a minute that I misread this giddiness as a behavior problem.  Like, say, any other parent on the planet.  And imagine for a minute that it makes me mad.  I know, hard to believe.  Go with it.  If I yelled NO or grabbed him or made a big show of anger or sadness or marched him to time-out … it would send him over the edge.  Jack would get giddier, even more hysterical, and he won’t hear a thing I say.  Because he is already out of control.  Which means I’d calmly give him a lecture about the moral wrong he is committing.  Which he won’t be able to hear it in that moment.  Because he’s spun out of control.   Which means I would be convinced that my child couldn’t comprehend basic things and actually enjoyed hurting others.

And it wouldn’t be true.

And it won’t help because it’s not that he won’t stop himself when he’s dysregulated; he can’t.  He needs my calm, gentle help.

And so do the cats.  Dang it.  So do the cats.

About the Author: Brenda Rothman, the mother of an autistic son, writes about autism, parenting, and shoes on her blog Mama Be Good Brenda is also on Twitter @mamabegood, where she enjoys margatweetas, and on Facebook at, where she spills coffee creamer.

All images are the exclusive property of Brenda Rothman and Mama Be Good and are protected under the United States and International Copyright laws. The images may not be reproduced, copied, transmitted or manipulated without the written permission of Brenda Rothman at Mama Be Good. © 2009 – 2011 Mama Be Good.

Chasing Tails first appeared on Brenda’s blog and is reprinted here with permission.



One thought on “Chasing Tails

  1. Cecile says:

    I used to do that a lot as a child, and it still happens. When I am overwhelmed or nervous or scared, you can bet I will laugh hysterically. Sometimes I struggle so hard to suppress the laughter, it leaves me unable to show any other response.

    It is a different kind of laughter than when I am merely joyful – there is a very fine line between hysterical laughter and hysterical crying. Sometimes when I laugh like this I can sense the tears coming, and to stop that, I deliberately think of more funny things to keep laughing. It sounds funny when I write it down, but it is an honest explanation.

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