The First Sorry

I have a small scar on my forehead, and every time I look in the mirror and see it, I am reminded of Nigel’s long road to understanding the word “sorry.” Sorry is one of those vague words, like “thanks” or “please.” It’s not a concrete noun or verb, nor the type of adjective that tells something’s size or color. It is impossible for an autistic child to visualize. For a long time, Nigel did not understand the word.

When he was six years old, we had some friends and their two children over for a barbeque,  and Nigel was enjoying interacting with the kids (he has always been social, in spite of the autism). His verbal abilities were quite limited then. They were playing a chasing game, running through the house, and their little boy was chasing Nigel, who was laughing. Nigel ran into his room and slammed the door behind him, catching the other little boy’s fingers in the door. I knew he didn’t mean to, but the little boy was hurt, and I wanted Nigel to apologize. While the other mother was soaking her son’s fingers in a bowl of ice water, I kept telling Nigel that he needed to say that he was sorry. He kept saying “No sorry, no sorry” over and over again. So I took him in his room and tried again to explain it to him, and again he said “No sorry, no sorry.” I spanked him. It pains me to admit that I’ve done and said things to my son that I regret, that I hate myself for doing, in the days before I understood how the autism was affecting him. I told him again, in a horrible voice, “You need to say sorry!” and again he persisted with his “no sorry” mantra. I just didn’t get it. To this day I feel terrible for not understanding him. His verbal skills were so limited then that perhaps he was actually trying to say “I’m sorry” but it came out “no sorry.” And I wish that I’d had the insight to know that then, and to react differently, instead of punishing him for his inability to say something properly.

Just one year later, Nigel and I were out in the backyard playing. He tickled me or something, and I came after him with a playful, “I’m gonna get ya!” I chased him through the side yard, and Nigel, laughing, ran through the wooden gateway, slamming the gate behind him. He slammed it just as I ran into it, and the force of the impact split the skin on my forehead. I saw stars and almost collapsed. I slowly opened the gate and stood there, trying to regain my composure. Nigel came back, took one look at me, and said, “Sorry! Sorry! Sorry, Mom!” I hugged him and told him that I was okay.

“Sorry” is now a regular part of Nigel’s vocabulary, although he rarely puts “I’m” in front of it. Usually he will say, “Sorry about that” or “Sorry I did that” or “Sorry I forgot to do that.” If he didn’t understand its meaning before, he does now, and he readily apologizes for his mistakes. But maybe that’s also because he’s frequently heard it from me.

You see, sorry is a regular part of my vocabulary, too. Even though I accepted the autism diagnosis from the beginning, I didn’t understand all the ways it affected Nigel – the pervasive nature of it – for many years. I’m still learning. I still get frustrated with him. I understand so much more now, but I’m ashamed of my reactions before I understood, when I expected him to do or say things that he wasn’t able to. And so I’ve been saying sorry quite a bit over the years. Fortunately, Nigel’s not the only one who learns things. His mom does too.

12 thoughts on “The First Sorry

  1. Jeffrey Deutsch

    Hello Tanya,

    I’m very glad you and Nigel have grown together.

    I make a point of apologizing whenever I might have done wrong or hurt someone. Willingness to apologize is a major factor in my respect or lack thereof for someone – especially someone in authority.

    Whatever your mistakes may have been, Nigel does need to learn to say certain things in precisely the way the rest of the society says them, and that includes “I’m sorry” instead of “No sorry”. I’m sure you knew that already.

    Keep up the good work!

    Jeff Deutsch

  2. Tera

    Sorry…what a huge word. I still don’t understand autism after having this kid in my presence for 15 years…Kaeden does say sorry, but then repeats the behavior he was sorry about over and over. He hasn’t correlated: Sorry means learning form your mistakes. But I need to remember what sorry means often as well.

    This morning, when I held my young man in a big bear hug before school, there were no sorry’s needed. It felt so fantastic.

  3. mama mara

    Tanya, you are such a wonderful mother. Thank you for your willingness to share those cringe-worthy moments that we all have as parents and what you’ve learned from them. The one thing I try to remember is that mistakes are like fertilizer: I hold my nose and use them to grow.

  4. Carrie

    Rojo says, “I forgive you” when I apologize, and it about brings me to my knees every single time. I hope you feel forgiven. By everyone, especially you.

  5. mommy~dearest

    I too, cringe at the mistakes I have made, just by not understanding just how Autism affects every aspect of my son’t life- even those parts that aren’t obviously affected.

    Jaysen has suffered a spanking (or two-ish) for something I later realized was totally unwarranted.

    It’s true that while we try to teach them, we also have much to learn from them as well.

  6. Joanie

    Before I had children, I never realized how much I would learn from them. Since they were born, with all of their challenges and talents, I’ve learned so much about myself and what is important in life. It is quite humbling at times and often breathtaking.

  7. Carol

    Tears . . . I can relate . . . but there will always be SOMETHING that we did/didn’t do that we’ll feel guilty about. This includes how I feel about my “neuro-typical” daughter. In fact, I’ve always felt that from the moment they’re born, the guilt comes with the diapers!

  8. kyra

    oh tanya! you are an amazing mother! this post is very moving to me. the most powerful example we can be for our kids is not to never do anything for which we are sorry but to model our humanity, our mistakes, our regret with humility and strength.

  9. john

    we have the same issue with ‘sorry’, now we have him say “i was wrong when i did….blah blah”

    our issue now is he is saying “i did it be accident”, with everything he does wrong.

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