Elliott has long, dirty fingernails a lot of the time. I cut them no more than once per week, no matter what. When they get long and gross, it bothers me not just when I see them, but all throughout the day. I think about it when I wake up, at work, over dinner. It sounds like I’m exaggerating, but I am not. I used to judge people whose kids had long, dirty fingernails, and I guess I still do. So I know that some people see his nails and probably judge me. But cutting Elliott’s fingernails is one of the things I most hate to do in my life. Here is how it goes. I tell Elliott about 30 minutes in advance that it is time for the weekly trim. We read a social story that I wrote for him on PowerPoint on my laptop. The story is called “Elliott, It’s Time to Cut Your Fingernails!” The exclamation point tries (and fails) to instill a sense of lightheartedness. The story features photos of him, me, nail clippers. It gives strategies for relaxing during the process. Count to 10. Breathe. Sing a song. He loves the story. “Read it again, Mommy,” he says. So we do. Finally, I tell him the time has come and that when we are all finished, he will get a fruit snack or a lollipop. He seems prepared. He seems calm.
But as soon as I sit him in my lap and he catches the glint of the clippers, he begins twisting out of my arms. “I have to go potty! I want a treat! I don’t like it! No! I have to go potty! I want a treat! I want daddy!” and so forth. I have cut both of the boys’ nails since they were born, so it is just us two, and sometimes that makes me sad. I don’t want to be the one inflicting one of the worst routines in his life on him. He kicks me. He begins sobbing. He writhes and screams. I eventually wrap my legs around him and angle my body such that he cannot move his limbs. “Get me out! I can’t move!” he screams, and I feel abusive. My heart beats more quickly. As he trembles and cries, I try to block it out and do the work. I cut the nails, one by one. It is an excruciating, slow process. Sometimes it takes twenty minutes. The toenails are worse than the fingernails. When we finish, his face is smeared with snot and tears. I hug him deeply and whisper I am sorry and that I love him and he cries and heaves into my chest until eventually he calms down and begins breathing normally again. He doesn’t normally enjoy long hugs, but he has been traumatized, so this hug will sometimes last five minutes. Suddenly, he stands up as though nothing happened, the tears already disappearing from his eyes. He touches the wet splotches on his face with curiosity, seeming almost surprised to find them there. “Fruit snack?” he asks, and I give the tiny package to him. He devours the fruity globules as though nothing ever happened.
Last year, there was a period of several weeks when the preparation and the social stories and the treats all worked. No screaming. Minimal fidgeting. And then…it just started being awful again.
Elliott is doing so well. I have no business complaining. He’s doing great in school, he has friends, he plays well and gets along with his brother. His speech is improving rapidly. He is getting bigger and stronger. He is happy. He is confident. He is smart. He is funny. He is adorable as hell. When I am cutting his fingernails, though, that all fades away. Something is unmistakably wrong, and nothing I do seems to fix it. He is hurt and crying and trying to escape me. He screams for me to stop, stop, stop. In those moments, I am reminded, acutely, of what autism looks like. Here I am, it says. You cannot ignore me. The fingernails become more than just fingernails. Then we do it again the next week.