“Dealing with Asperger’s is extremely tough,” says Karen, “because the syndrome fluctuates. There are times Alex looks and acts extremely normal and in control. But with the blink of an eye, he has outrageous behavior.”
For example, a video camera placed in his room captures Alex, now 15, shouting at his mother. “I know! I’m not an idiot, and I know I made a damn mistake!”
“A blowup will escalate fairly quickly,” says Rich. “He is very smart, and he knows how to press the buttons.”
The camera captures Alex explaining heatedly to his mother, imitating her tone of voice, “You can’t tell me it’s that bad at school when all the kids are friendly to you. Yet inside, I know they’re afraid.” Later, he punches the air and says, “I cannot believe how damn irresponsible I am!”
But in calmer times, Alex has insight into his own disorder. “It’s sort of like a snowball effect. I try at first to blow off steam little by little. If I cannot do that, it’s all just downhill from there. I just explode.”
“He starts yelling, we start yelling, and then soon everyone is yelling,” Rich says.
The camera in their home captured Rich taking an aggressive tone with his son. “Alex, you imagine so much!” he says.
Alex responds with a scream from the top of his lungs. “I can see right through them!”
“You can’t see through anybody!” Rich yells back. “You can’t even see through your mother or me! You can’t tell when we’re mad or not!” Karen throws her arms into the air and pleads for calm.
Karen says that if Alex doesn’t understand a homework assignment, he might have a meltdown. He has slammed doors, thrown books, and has even thrown objects at her and her husband.
“My life centers around Alex because his condition is so volatile, someone has to be there to pick up the pieces,” says Karen. “But yet, at some point I want to have my life back too.”
Aware that he is being filmed in his bedroom, Alex approaches the camera and looks squarely into the lens. In an eerily stern voice, he says, “I don’t need any of your dumba** help. I’ll be the dictator of the world. You’ll be bowing down to me. Everybody will die except for me.” He proceeds to pull books off his shelves and toss them across the room. “How do you like that? Bulls*** to you!”
Back in the studio, Dr. Phil asks Karen and Rich, “What is this doing to you as a couple?”
Rich responds, “We don’t have a normal relationship in the sense that most married people of 20-plus years have, not because I don’t think either one of us doesn’t like each other, but I think we’re more like two friends living in the same house. And we both have committed to Alex so much, that we’re just friends.”
“And he continues to do what he’s doing, and you two have what I call non-directional frustration,” says Dr. Phil. “Since you don’t know what to do with him, since you can’t get that to change, you kind of vent toward each other. It’s kind of, ‘I’m so frustrated, and I can’t do anything here, so I’m going to pull back from my partner. I’m going to go into a shell.'”
Karen and Rich jointly confirm.
“And of course that doesn’t make the situation better. That makes it worse,” says Dr. Phil.
Dr. Phil explains that Rich has been hiding some of the protective measures he has taken, but that he is ready to reveal them now.
Rich explains, “I try not to talk too much about things that Alex could do to us to my wife because I don’t want her to take on another burden in her mind. I’ve taken a number of steps to make sure that we’re safe in the household that I don’t even think my wife knows about. I’ve made sure that there are no sharp objects in the house except for in the kitchen, and I’ve put screwdrivers and hammers away from Alex in our bedroom. I’ve even put away some medications that my wife is not aware of that he can’t get to. The thinking Alex would never hurt anybody, but the non-thinking Alex might not think first.”
“You fear for your safety,” Dr. Phil says.
Rich explains that to some degree he does, but that his greater fear is what will happen when Alex eventually has a girlfriend and has his first inevitable experience with heartbreak.
“When the stress gets high, when he starts getting emotionally invested and gets blunted in that way,” Dr. Phil adds.
“Yeah, I think that one [blow up is] going to be even bigger than what would happen to us,” Rich concludes.
“Do you worry about that?” Dr. Phil asks Karen.
“Oh, absolutely,” she responds. “I’ve gotten calls from school where Alex didn’t like how somebody looked at him and he punched him. And then he goes running and hiding and nobody can find him for hours.”
“I think it’s really important that you understand the nature of this disease,” Dr. Phil stresses. “If he was born with some kind of defect in his leg and he limped, you wouldn’t criticize him for that, you wouldn’t be upset with him for that. That would be totally involuntary, right? What if this is exactly the same thing? What if this is not something that you therapy out of? What if this is not something that a talking cure will fix? What if it’s not a manipulation and exploitation on his part, but instead is neurologically based and totally involuntary on his part — doesn’t mean that it can’t be dealt with symptomatically, that there might not be some medications that can help, that there may not be some things that can improve the expressions of the symptoms, but that it does have a neurological brain disorder basis. If you at least had clear answers about that, don’t you think it would take some of the mystery away and give you some clarity on what you’re dealing with?”
“Absolutely,” says Karen. “And it would take the burden off. I wouldn’t have to feel so guilty.”