Tag Archives: parenting

Taking the Evening Off

You know how it is. When you have a child with special needs and you dare to venture out in public, you often get stared at, sometimes judged. You know what people are thinking because occasionally they say it out loud. “Somebody needs a spanking!” “Can’t you control your child?” “You shouldn’t have him out in public, disturbing others.” I’ve heard it all. And believe me, it got to a point where I just stayed home, other than the mad dash to the grocery store, when I needed something and there was no one to watch my boys, so I took them with me. And why bother with restaurants? My older son’s sensory issues were so extreme that he would writhe on the floor in agony, wailing “go” every few minutes. It was one of the only words he could say at age five.

Time passed, and we dared to venture out a little more. After years of intensive therapy, my son’s sensory issues had become more manageable. But only for a limited time, of course. After ten or fifteen minutes in a restaurant, he needed to crawl under the table for relief. This does not look good at any age, but it’s really frowned upon by age twelve. And although my son had eventually learned to talk, he still didn’t understand the social expectation of thanking the wait staff when they bring you something in a restaurant. I would always model the appropriate response, and at some point, my son started saying “thank you” when prompted. Almost every day, in various situations, I would need to prompt him. After a while, after the thousandth time, I thought it would always be that way.

Then one day not too long ago, at the age of fifteen, my son said his first unprompted thank you when someone had waited on him. I was happy, of course, but I figured it was an isolated incident. I figured that we’d go right back to the prompting routine that had been in place for so many years, that it was a crutch for him. You see, even when my parenting is not being openly criticized by others, I criticize it myself. You know how it is.

Soon after that day, we went to a restaurant. I sat in awe as my sons conversed. There was no wailing, no writhing on the floor. No crawling under the table. No going up to other tables and repeating a line from whatever movie had been watched earlier in the day. And when a plate of food was placed in front of my older son, he said Thank you. Completely unprompted. And I allowed myself to entertain the notion that maybe all the years of prompting had not been a crutch. It had been what he needed in order to learn what was socially acceptable, what was expected of him. It just took him a really long time to get it down.

And now, he’s got it down. Last week, we went out to dinner at a restaurant that we’d gone to periodically over the years, once my son had gotten to a point where he no longer wailed and writhed on the floor. In the past, he’d crawled under the table many times, he’d gotten up and walked all around, he’d had to go outside for sensory breaks. He’d never acknowledged the waiters. But this time was different. This time it was like autism took the evening off.  

I know that’s not how it is for my son. Even on the infrequent occasions when things seem effortless, when things flow seamlessly, he is hard at work – processing, filtering, anticipating, regulating. Autism is always with him. But that evening, at dinner, he was flawless. He placed his order like a pro, he conversed, he joked with the waiter, he thanked him – unprompted – three separate times (!), he politely and discreetly asked where the restroom was and returned to the table afterward without wandering. It was nothing short of amazing, and perfect for the occasion – celebrating the publication of my book. For the first time ever in a restaurant, we were able to stay for dessert, and I savored every moment.

But the real treat, the best moment of all, was when the waiter brought us the check at the end. “I just wanted to tell you how well-mannered your sons are,” he said to me. Of course, all parents love to hear that. They smile and say thank you; they’ve probably heard it before. But I never had. And my face probably looked strange to him as I said, “Thank you very much,” while trying not to cry. All those years and years of stares and judgment, writhing and wailing and crawling under tables are finally behind us. Not to mention the years of incessant prompting, wondering why I bothered. Now I have my answer.

And I don’t think that waiter will ever know how much his words meant to me.

Vague Catharsis

Ed. note: Apologies for the cryptic nature of this post. And thanks for reading it anyway.

There are times when I think it would have been advantageous to have made this an anonymous blog. Times when I wish I could tap into the cathartic quality of blogging, write about what happens, what I struggle with as a parent. But sometimes I can’t. And this is one of those times.

It was discovered this morning that one of my sons committed an infraction against my other son, sight unseen. It was the type of thing to which some people would just say, “Oh, that’s what siblings do,” but that’s not what I say. It was the type of thing where the guilty party could blame it on certain organizational deficits instead of admitting fault. It was the type of thing that, if not stopped now, could easily grow into a problem that would later involve others besides his sibling. And it’s the type of thing that I will not specify because I don’t want to violate his privacy.

Of course, the morning rush is not the time to handle such infractions. Not only that, I needed a plan. What I wish I had was someone to bounce strategies off of, someone to whom I could say, “How do you think we should handle this?” That would entail there being a “we” involved, and since there is not, I somehow got though a busy day at work while bouncing ideas off of myself.  I allowed myself a quick moment of self-pity while checking my e-mail. And then I got my answer – at least part of it. It was the day’s post from Daily OM, and it was exactly what I needed. It was a way for me to start off by telling my son that even if something he does seems insignificant, it’s not. “Everything You Do Matters,” the title said, and the post described how our actions, both positive and negative, cause a ripple effect that spreads to many more people than we can ever realize. I printed it out to read to my son when we got home, and I spent the rest of the day coming up with ways to expand on it.

At home, the plan, which I had gone over in my head all day long, backfired. My son was defensive and vehemently denied doing what he’d been accused of, even in the face of overwhelming evidence, even though I’d approached the subject in a calm, diplomatic manner. I was not pleased. It was bad enough that he had done it, but then to deny it? Not cool. However, in a moment of what could only have been divine inspiration, I told him that we would be spending the next few days doing a certain thing that would either disprove his alibi or vindicate him. (I did not use those words while speaking to him, of course; I reserve all the fancy wording for the blog.) But what I said next was – I think – what made all the difference. I told him, sincerely, that if it turned out that he did not do what he’d been accused of, I would be the first to apologize for not trusting him. And then I left the room.

I sat at my computer, logging back in to do more work. I tried not to fume. I tried to let it go. The confrontation was over; I had done my parental best. But what if this was the beginning of a terrible habit? What if, in not wanting to be a Gestapo parent, I hadn’t done enough to stop it? Parental guilt gets me either way. I sat there in its grip, unable to reason, unable to see past the moment.

Fifteen minutes later, my son walked into my office. He sat on the floor for a few minutes, petting the cats and sighing audibly. “Are you all right?” I asked, still going for diplomacy. And then, I heard the magic words. “I have something to tell you. I’m just afraid you’ll be mad at me.”

Relief washed over me as I realized that maybe, just maybe, I’m getting through to him. We talked, and it was good. We talked about what it means to have integrity. We talked about doing the right thing. We both shed a few tears. Later, he apologized to his brother, and although I didn’t hear the exchange, I was told separately by both parties that it was positive. You know that saying about parenting being the toughest job you’ll ever love? Every day is a testament to how true that is. And if your wording is vague enough, you can blog about it anyway.

Bert

I don’t really remember having a hero when I was growing up. Some kids idolize actors, musicians, and athletes. Some kids cite firefighters or other rescue personnel as heroes. Sometimes teachers, even parents. Religious and political figures. And then there are those who have fictional characters as their heroes – movie, book, or cartoon characters and superheroes (I admit, I did have a bizarre crush on Aquaman for a while).

As adults, we often develop different heroes (fortunately, for some of us). Our friends and spouses, for example. Our siblings. For many, parents still head the list. Those of us who are special needs parents often list the teachers and therapists who work with our children as our heroes, not to mention our children themselves, with all that they go through. And then we – parents – have each other. We inspire, listen, support, encourage, and make suggestions. We reach out, share, learn, and hope. We identify with each other.  We are each others’ heroes.

And now I have a new hero to add to the list – the ever-growing list of fellow autism parents I have become fortunate enough to know, either online or in person, or both. I want everyone else to know about him too, because I think he’s phenomenal. I’ll call him Bert. Bert attends the support group that I facilitate. He’s 84 years old and has a son with Asperger’s. Eighty-four! His son is 58, and Bert drives him to work and cares for him. (He recently applied with a local organization that handles adult DD services to get some support systems in place.) Bert reads anything about autism that he can get his hands on, takes notes, and comes to the meetings to tell all of us about what he read. He tells jokes, encourages us to lean on each other (like AA people, he says), and patiently listens to those of us with much younger kids. He reminds us that even though our kids are all different and at different ages, we share many similar experiences. He wears a cute straw hat and plaid shirts and I just want to give him a big hug. All of us inspire each other, but that man, that gentle, devoted, amazing man, is my new hero (sorry, Aquaman).

Bert, I want to be like you when I grow up.