For a long time, I didn’t make Lucas do anything. As the father of a non-verbal child with autism, I had taken any movement or motion he made as a temporary shot of hope. Blowing kisses, slapping five, or even just waving were all or nothing. Either they happen immediately or we drop it.
It was all because I feared that awkward moment of silence. The moment that salesmen live for and DJs dread. Not only do people not speak, they don’t even breathe. All eyes are on you to end it as soon as you can. It’s a moment that every special needs parent has dealt with.
Wave hi, Lucas.
Time goes by. He won’t look at the person or even acknowledge that I had asked. In some cases, he starts to walk away. Whoever was awaiting on a hello is now standing in a state of limbo, often leaning forward in anticipation of something – anything. After a few moments that feel like an eternity, they break that awkward silence with, “It’s OK. He’s probably just tired.”
That’s the go-to excuse for that type of situation. I can’t tell you how many times someone has been willing to let us off the hook with a plea of exhaustion. Tired from what? I don’t know. He’s not training for any sort of competitive sports or running for office. Tired of saying hello maybe?
The worst part was that I had always let it go. Sure. Tired. That’s it. Better to wish fatigue on my kid than deal with an indefinite wait on a social pleasantry. I didn’t like doing it, but I knew it was the easiest way to go. I thought about it a lot, though. Later that night or when I was brushing my teeth the next morning, I would wonder if he’d ever wave hello on his own or if I was teaching him the wrong thing by letting him get away without it.
I had gone to pick Lucas up from preschool one day when that outlook changed. He had been attending a special needs school since he was two and I had seen all sorts of students in the hallways. On this particular day, a father had come for his wheelchair bound daughter, whom appeared to be a few years older than my son. They had signed out and were wheeling through the front door when the bearded and perpetually happy security guard said goodbye to them both. The father leaned over the girl’s head and said:
I watched as all eyes turned downward to the daughter, who didn’t appear to be conscious of her surroundings at all. Her head moved around as she rapidly scanned the room. Her hands followed just as quickly and, as the seconds passed, no one said a word. It was the security guard who broke the silence and offered the same out that I had heard so often before.
Ah, it’s OK. She doesn’t have to wave goodbye.
Case closed. I started to turn around when the father’s stern voice cut in and rejected that idea.
No. It’s not OK. Wave. Goodbye.
The air left the room as everyone froze. More seconds ticked by and I started to get the knot in my stomach when Lucas would run away from a requested greeting. I began to pity this poor father who didn’t realize his own daughter’s limitations. In my mind, he was setting himself up for a disappointment. She couldn’t possibly do what he was asking. I wasn’t even sure she heard him. And I definitely didn’t think she could do what she did next.
Her eyes still jetting around the doors in front of her, she raised her arm and said “goodbye.”
A feeling of joyous relief and shocked happiness swept over everyone in view. There were audible gasps. From the guard to me to the front desk woman and other parents I hadn’t even noticed – we all were blown away. It felt miraculous. Well, to everyone but the father, that is. He just matter of factly stated.
Very nice. Good girl. Let’s go.
And they wheeled out.
To him, there was no surprise or shock. He knew she could do it. When she did, he didn’t high five everyone and pass out Coors Light. This was his life and he knew what his child was capable of better than we did. No one could tell him it’s OK that she doesn’t wave or say that she must be tired.
From that day on, I do the same to Lucas. He no longer gets to dart into the corner with an iPad or stare at a mirror when I call his name. He waves hello. He waves goodbye. He kisses his sister goodnight and he hugs family when they come to visit.
I don’t fear the awkward silence anymore because it rarely happens now that I’ve made it clear to him that I know what he can do. I don’t ask for more than he can handle but I won’t accept any less than he can give. We have that understanding now and he hasn’t let me down yet.