Impulse Control: From Born on the Wrong Planet

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Impulse control is often a large problem with Asperger’s children. All through school, Erika Hammerschmidt bit people, kicked other children. Having a Reason is the story of an incident that happened in Junior High.

The following article is the first in a series of three, excerpted from the book “Born on the Wrong Planet, Second Edition” By Erika Hammerschmidt.

As Polly listened to the assistant principal at Ricki’s school, she felt her muscles tense. ìI have no idea what happened, but Ricki kicked another child again, and handicap or not, we just canít have that.î

Read on for the entire story.

When she was very young, Erika Hammerschmidt was diagnosed with with Asperger’s ADD, ADHD, Tourette’s and OCD. Ms. Hammerschmidt speaks three languages, is a graduate of Augsburg College in Minneapolis, Minnesota, and has studied all over the world. This and all other excerpts are copyright (c) 2005 by Tyborne Hill Publishers LLC, Palo Alto, California. The entire book is available in paper from Tyborne Hill www.tybornehill.com, at Amazon.com, or and Barnes and Noble.com. Or at any bookstore. This article is used by permission. Reprint permission is available from www.tybornehill.com.


Having a Reason

As Polly listened to the assistant principal at Ricki’s school, she felt her muscles tense.1

I have no idea what happened, but Ricki kicked another child again, and handicap or not, we just can’t have that.”

Over the years, Polly had spent countless hours smoothing things over after Ricki’s violent outbursts, and always, when she thought she had things fixed, smoothed, and assured, Ricki blew up again, shattering people’s trust and throwing life into an uproar.

This time, after Ricki had been home for several days, Polly spent a tension-filled hour negotiating desperately with Ricki’s teachers and the assistant principal, who was now on the phone, sounding hurt and betrayed.

Ricki had kicked another child, without provocation, after having been back in school for an hour.


Polly led her quiet, sullen daughter out to their old brown station wagon. Both were tense, Ricki looking mostly at the ground. Polly had been crying. What had she done to deserve this? A sigh escaped that was half a sob. Where had she gone wrong? Had she been too angry with Ricki while she’d been home for the last few days? Was this Ricki’s revenge?

On the other hand, Polly thought, opening the door on her side of the car, maybe she’d been too lax, maybe she’d failed to make Ricki understand how serious things were. When she got mad and talked harshly, Ricki screwed up her face and threw horrible frightening rages.

Polly settled behind the wheel, pulling her seatbelt down and clicking it into the buckle.

Maybe she’d messed up everything from the beginning. She wasn’t that strict. Demanding, yes, strict—not with her daughter. Or maybe, because she demanded so much of herself, she’d been too strict with Ricki, demanded too much, and created a sullen, angry girl who saw punishment as the answer to everything. Maybe Ricki felt that now it was her turn to punish the entire world.

Polly put her hands on the wheel. “Why, Ricki?”

She turned the ignition, and nearly started crying again. “Why did you have to do that—why now? I pleaded, I begged, I threatened, and I got you back into school. Now I’m going to have to do it again.” A tear rolled out of one of Polly’s eyes, and she brushed it away with the back of her hand, determined not to cry.

They’re going to expel you, Ricki,” she continued in a shaky voice. “They don’t have to take this, and I have no idea how I’m going to find a school that will take you.”

Polly started the car. “Why?” she forced a steady voice. “Of all times?”

Ricki bit her lip, shrinking back in her seat, but did not answer.

Polly backed the car slowly out of the parking space. It took all her strength to control both the car and her own temper. She repeated the question, “Why?”

Ricki’s eyebrows wrinkled together in concern. “I don’t remember.”

Polly glanced in the mirror and met her daughter’s eyes for a second. Ricki’s stare was a mixture of resentment and fear.

Polly’s answer was half anger and half bafflement, “You don’t remember? You have to remember; it happened less than an hour ago! Why did you do it? You have to have had a reason!”

I don’t know,” Ricki protested, her voice shaking slightly.

Polly drew a shaky breath, trying to calm herself. “Listen to me. You kicked that kid for a reason. People don’t do things like that for no reason.” She turned onto the street and pointed the car toward home. “I don’t know why you don’t want to talk about it, but you have to, whatever the reason. I’m not going to say I won’t be mad at you when you tell me, but it will be much better if you tell me now. Why did you attack that kid?”

Ricki’s face puckered, and tears gathered in her brown eyes. “I don’t know why. I remember it happened but I don’t remember what I was thinking. It just happened. That’s all I know.”

Stop lying to me!” Polly yelled. “Things like that don’t ‘just happen’! Stop trying to act as if it’s not your fault!” Swearing as her bumper almost collided with a truck, she forced her foot to ease off the gas pedal. “It didn’t just happen by itself, you did it. You have to remember why!”

Ricki squirmed in her seat and clenched her eyes shut, but the tears escaped, sliding down her face. “I’m not lying,” she whimpered, her lower jaw sticking out in defiance. “I don’t remember why. You’re lying, because you say I have to remember, and I don’t.

A wave of fury almost overcame Polly. She gripped the steering wheel tightly to maintain her self-control. “You don’t talk to your mother that way,” she said in a low, dangerous voice. “You don’t call your mother a liar!”

You called me a liar first!”

That’s because you weren’t telling the truth, and you know it!” Rage mixed with despair now, and there were tears of frustration in Polly’s eyes too. How stupid did Ricki think she was? How dense and arrogant could a child be, expecting people to believe her ridiculous story?

You’re the parent, she told herself. Get a grip. She forced herself to speak calmly, “Ricki, it is simply not possible for someone to kick someone else without having a reason for it. What you have been saying to me is not believable. You must realize that and stop expecting me to believe it. Now I want you to relax, think about when you kicked that kid, and tell me what was in your mind when you did it.”

Ricki slumped forward, shaking in angry sobs. “I can’t,” she cried. “When I think about it I don’t remember anything in my mind. I can’t.

The car came to an abrupt stop in the driveway. “We’re home,” said Polly. “Go to your room and think about it until you have an answer for me. I’m going to talk to your doctor.”


The phone shook in Polly’s hand as she recounted the events of the day to Ricki’s psychiatrist. “Ricki kept saying she didn’t know why. Why did she say that? Why didn’t she just tell me why she did it?” Polly demanded, struggling to keep the tears away.

When the doctor said nothing, Polly continued. “I mean, I don’t understand! She’s done things like this before, too, saying she doesn’t know things that she must know. Partly, I’m angry at Ricki for assuming that I’m stupid enough to believe the stories she tells, and partly I’m concerned, because I keep feeling that she must have some terrible secret, something that I ought to know about, something she thinks she has to lie about and hide.”

After a long pause, the doctor said quietly, “I think she really doesn’t know.”

For a moment it felt like all the world was turning against her. The last thing Polly expected was this calm confirmation of her daughter’s bizarre claim.

How can Ricki not know?” Polly cried. “Ricki knows how to spell almost every word in the dictionary, knows grammar better than her teachers do, knows how the exhaust system of a car works, knows every phase of the life cycle of a ladybug…”

She doesn’t know why she hurts people,” the doctor said. “That’s how impulses are. People don’t always know why they do things, especially children, especially a child like Ricki. When she loses impulse control, it’s not her conscious mind making a choice; it’s her emotional handicaps making her do things she really doesn’t want to do, things that scare her when she realizes what has happened.”

You mean she was telling the truth?”

I think so.”

Oh.” Polly sagged, then shuddered as the reality took hold. In all her conversations with Ricki’s psychiatrist, about Ricki’s emotional disorders and impulse-control problems, the idea that Ricki had no idea what was happening when her compulsions took over simply had never registered in Polly’s mind. Now, as she saw things from Ricki’s point of view, she felt miserable herself.

Polly imagined the classroom from a child’s viewpoint: another student came near, a sudden destructive rage surged up, then the student was on the floor, clutching a bruised leg, as the girl who has bruised it trembled in fear of the monster inside her. She saw the long hallway ahead of the child being led to the principal’s office, and she felt Ricki’s anxiety, wondering what Mother would say.

Finally, Polly saw herself in the car moments ago, scolding as tears burned Ricki’s eyes. She knew that in Ricki’s mind there was no middle ground. Truth was truth, lies were lies, and when adults, even her mother, dismissed the truth as a lie, Ricki would file it as a bitter injustice and remember it for years.

So what do I do?” Polly murmured. “Tell me, what can I do when something like that happens?”

It’s a hard question,” the doctor said sympathetically. “You’ve been given a difficult role in this child’s life. To Ricki, her parents are supposed to be a refuge from the rest of the world. The rest of the world doesn’t understand her; and it teases, punishes, and rejects her, and when she comes home to you, she needs you to be there for her.”

Be there for her.”

Of course, it’s still your duty to tell her what she should and shouldn’t do, and to try your best to stop her from hurting people. But if she’s going to grow past this stage and learn to consider other people’s feelings, she has to have someone who considers her feelings, someone who listens to her. Ricki is a child who needs a lot of listening, a lot of attention and acceptance. Sometimes it’s hard to listen and accept her when she has done things that simply cannot be accepted.”

Polly nodded, pressing her lips together. “So when I tell her that her behavior is unacceptable, I have to do it gently, while letting her know that I accept her.

Yes, exactly,” murmured the psychiatrist, “You have to be sure she knows you’re talking about her behavior, and not about her as a person, because, of course, you accept her as a person.”

Exactly,” Polly repeated.

Guilt descended on Polly like a smothering blanket. “I’ve done everything so wrong. I haven’t accepted her. I’ve shouted at her, rejected her, told her she was lying, ordered her to tell me something she didn’t know. And I’ve done things like this so many times. I’ve ruined her life. It’s probably all my fault that she has so many problems.”

No, it isn’t. This is simply how she is, how she was born. Thousands of children are born with the same problems, to all kinds of parents, good and bad. From all the time I’ve worked with your family, I can tell you that, as parents, you’re on the good end of the scale. You do accept her, much more often than society expects you to. You encourage her when she does good, intelligent things; you answer her questions patiently and clearly; you are there for her when someone hurts her.”

I wasn’t there for her today. I should have been there for her. I should have realized what was happening and what she needed, but I was stupid and failed her.”

Failure happens. Parents aren’t perfect, especially when the child is as infuriating as Ricki can be. All parents lose their tempers sometimes, and a lot of the time the anger is misplaced. You acted in a way that would have been more appropriate if Ricki were a normal girl.”

But she isn’t, and that’s why she did what she did today. I failed her by not realizing that.”

The doctor paused, then spoke with a hint of cheer behind his calm voice. “I’m sure you’ve heard that we all have to learn from our mistakes; that failure exists to prepare us for success later. So, learn from this mistake, and let this failure strengthen you to succeed another time. I’m not here to be your psychiatrist, but I can give advice to help you and your daughter deal with the problems that you both face. Here’s a bit of that advice: When you think about a problem you’ve had, don’t think only of what you did wrong. Consider what the experience has taught you, and know that, because of it, things will be better next time.”

Polly hung up the phone with hands that were steadier than before, although they still shook slightly. She walked down the hall to her daughter’s room and knocked quietly.

There was no answer.

Opening the door a crack, and looking in, she saw the aftermath of a tantrum. Pillows and blankets had been flung around the room, a doll and a toy car had been smashed, there was a new dent in the plaster wall, and several childish drawings that had hung on Ricki’s magnet board lay shredded on the floor.

In the midst of it, Ricki slept sprawled across her bed, her face flushed and tearstained.

Polly shut the door. The next time she would talk to Ricki quietly. Walking away from Riki’s door, her whisper was more of a prayer for the strength she would need than a statement:

A little bit better next time.”



1Author’s Note: My mother contributed to this chapter.

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