If you have just got rid of some novels to the thrift (charity) store, think about buying an e-reader or join your local library. If working in your living room is a necessity, consider a slimline desk with narrow drawers and a pull-out shelf for your laptop. Losing a storage unit in a bedroom? Units are available that slide under the bed. But only store clothes or bedlinen here, because a mix of other possessions can possibly disrupt your sleep. When you remove excessive belongings from your life and step away from materialistic desires, it creates the opportunity for a significant life change to take place. When you get off the treadmill of a busy life, you need to stop for a moment and ask yourself, "What am I doing with my life? What will make me happy?" Think carefully about what you want out of your future, and take the necessary steps to achieve it. Living more simply can change you forever. You learn to "live in the now," appreciating every day of your wonderful existence. When I asked her why she was so interested in her files, her answer made complete sense: "Everyone else gets to see what all these people have said about me. I'd just like to know what they're reading." This was only one in a line of many challenges Sam made to the normal structure of therapy. She wanted--indeed needed--some sense of control over what was going on. At her request, we sometimes had sessions in the courtyard in front of the building. I once met her in the waiting room, only to see her chatting with two friends and have her then ask if it was okay if her friends joined us. On the spot, I said all right, at least for a few minutes. It turned out I had little to worry about. Sam's friends were far tougher on her--and armed with far more real-life data--than I could ever have been. It was a great session, though the friends never got invited back. Sam's "pathology," it was to turn out as we talked, was sadly well earned.

What she'd been through was more than sufficient to explain her long silence with me. The clues had been in her files, but it took Sam to help me put them together. She'd grown up in a just-getting-by family with poorly educated parents who'd tried in vain, but with brutal, sadistic physical force and repeated threats, to control her every move. They would fly off the handle if they didn't like how she styled her hair, who she dated, or even what articles she read. As she described the horror of the repeated abuse she experienced--and the very physical ways in which her parents sought desperately to assert their control--I found her halting words far more disturbing than any violence I'd ever seen on a movie screen. Once removed from her home, Sam went straight into a residential-care system that not only couldn't handle this angry young woman, but also ended up reenacting at least some of what she'd experienced at the hands of her parents. She experienced repeated physical confrontations with a poorly trained and overtaxed worker during one of her group-home stays. She was forcibly strip-searched by the police when picked up sleeping in a park one night. She was moved from residence to residence as a result of the financial needs of the larger social-service system of which she'd become a part. As Sam came to talk about how these events affected her, her struggle for control and autonomy began to make a great deal more sense. She hadn't wanted to go to SafeHaven, and the staff there were less than receptive when she arrived, focusing more on "clamping down" on her from the get-go than on helping her. Sam connected the dots of all these experiences and concluded, not without justification, that she was in real danger of losing any vestiges of her own autonomy or capacity for self-direction. She might easily be kept in a passive, childlike, and dependent role forever, or so it seemed to her. Now there's another side to this coin of keeping the act and the actor separated, and that's the mistake parents make of teaching their children that they love them only when they're good. This is called conditional love, and parents who practice it are producing within their children the belief that "I'm loved only when I behave myself, or when I get good grades," or whatever else it might be that Mom and Dad tie their love and approval to. As an example of conditional love, say Dad is out in the yard raking leaves. Five-year-old Jessica wants to help, so she grabs an extra rake out of the garage and pitches in. Her admiring and appreciative dad smiles at her and says, "Thank you, honey. I love you for helping me!" Now, on first glance, it's hard to see that Dad has done anything wrong. After all, the only thing he wanted to do was tell his little girl that he appreciated her help and that he loves her.

But the problem comes because he has tied his love for her to the fact that she is helping him. Jessica thinks happily to herself, Daddy loves me because I'm helping him. I know that someone is bound to ask, "You mean one little incident like that is going to hurt a child's self-esteem?" The answer is no, probably not. But problems do arise when this sort of response is repeated: "I love you, Bobby, because you keep your room so neat and clean!" "You got three As? My, what a good girl! I love you!" "Thank you for setting the table, Donna. I love you when you help me like this." When your children misbehave they must be disciplined, and, conversely, when they go out of their way to do something nice for you, they need to be thanked and told that their efforts are appreciated. But through it all, whether they're being disciplined or being thanked, they need to know that Mom and Dad love them, and that that love has nothing to do with the child's "performance." A child who grows up thinking that he must always strive to "earn" his parents' love will not have a well-developed sense of his innate worth. Looking back, it seems obvious that Elliot had autism, but at the time he was just perplexing to us. We were correct that Elliot showed superior intellectual ability in some areas, but what we didn't understand was that these behaviors did not mean he was gifted. He wasn't a genius or even an autistic genius; he was simply autistic. Our family's orientation to the world changed over time after dealing all day, every day, with Elliot's strangeness. Our new normal would have been anyone else's nightmare. It was easier to call it genius and just too scary to recognize what it was--autism. By now, the family unconsciously reoriented our lives around Elliot's intensity and Elliot's safety. We were no longer just his mother, father, and sister. Instead, we were Elliot's twenty-four-hour bodyguards. We were tired, and we were fearful. Tired people do not always have the mental energy to take a step back to see anything clearly. We never recognized how bad the situation had become.

There was never time to dwell on any event's greater meaning or significance because the next life-threatening incident was just about to happen. We were simply too busy trying to survive to do anything else. We already became desensitized to Elliot's peculiar behaviors and hypersensitized to his needs. I used to wonder why Elliot often seemed to prefer getting a negative reaction from me and from others such as teachers and peers rather than being praised for doing the right thing. Over time, this peculiar behavior started to make sense. When he didn't know what to do next, he would do something wrong. My yelling was a reaction he could count on. Keeping things the same was the most important thing for my son. Elliot craved predictability and needed sameness. Most of us want to avoid anyone being angry with us. But kids with autism try to keep everything predictable. That is far more important than someone being upset. Who in their right mind would want to be yelled at? Why couldn't he just listen to me and do as he was told? Lost, exhausted, and confused, we made the same mistake that most families do. We gave in to Elliot's demands without realizing what we were doing. Instead of making Elliot join our world, we changed our world to accommodate him as a way to prevent more explosive behavior and more family stress. Rather than force Elliot to adhere to family routines, we adhered to his. We helped prolong his stay on Autism Island. I can't believe I have nearly finished writing the article--I have really been on a journey with it for the last few months.

I am finding these dull winter days a bit depressing, but they do put me in the frame of mind to keep clearing out more stuff: I gave away two of my old summer baskets to a friend yesterday. I also decided that some chick-lit novels needed to go to the thrift (charity) store. I often buy them from the man on the beach, who sells a great selection, but they clutter up my shelves pretty quickly. Have I got the energy to tackle my office next? It's packed full of reference articles that hardly seem to get looked at now... I have battled a bit with the challenge of living with 100 items but I have only replaced things since I started, and I have noticed a change in my shopping habits--I still lust after some pretty clothes but I make myself resist. How have you got on? I wish you well and hope you've made progress too, and will continue to enjoy living your life of less. Fortunately, Sam was a fighter. The staff at SafeHaven (like her parents before them, and the social workers in between) could make her do many things, she realized, but the one thing they couldn't control was what was inside her head. She could still think for herself and decide for herself and that was what she was going to do. And she had decided that the staff couldn't make her talk about her painful experiences to some stranger. She realized that if she was going to make it as an adult, she'd have to stop letting herself be pushed around. It wasn't until I'd seen many more adolescents over the years that I realized that what was so unusual about Sam was not the strength of her striving for autonomy, but just how stifled her strivings had been before she saw me. Her desire for autonomy was like a great river whose power isn't always visible on the surface--unless one tries to dam it up. Her struggles were wild and flailing at times, but had a single, focused purpose. Sam had been willing to blast her way out of placement after placement, lest she feel others were successfully pushing her around again. She was willing to give up even the most basic privileges to avoid coming to therapy, and once there, was willing to endure long and painful silences to make the point to me (but even more so to herself, I suspect) that she was in control, at least of her own thoughts and words. No one could make her talk, and that one small victory became a point of pride and perhaps even comfort. All healthy adolescents want and need to develop their autonomy.