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.