When people learn that I have a non-verbal son with Autism, their minds usually spring to all the difficulties that must come with it. Without first-hand knowledge of our day-to-day lives, they assume that we live in a world of constant turmoil.
In all honesty, that couldn’t be further from the truth. Sure, Lucas gives us some unexpected and, like many children, trying times. And yes, some of those moments are unique to him. However, there are also many unexpected positives that most people don’t know.
For example, if we wanted to, we would never have to take him anywhere and he would be totally cool with it. Unlike his sister, who could become bored while watching a talking elephant juggle elves, Lucas never tires of watching his favorite television shows. Lock us in a room for a year with nothing but his three favorite episodes of Sesame Street and some cheese doodles, he’ll emerge with a big orange smile on his face when the final day ticks by.
Making things more complicated is that he often shows no interest in the things we have planned. You find yourself standing in the middle of a petting zoo that you don’t want to be at with a crying kid who doesn’t want to be there either wondering why you just spent $40 to be miserable. Trips like this, while not the norm, always tend to happen more than they should.
What we have learned, though, is that the experience can often change on a dime depending on his mood. By simply being patient and not magnifying his overreactions, we can salvage a day from the depths of misery and turn it into something amazing.
This past weekend was a perfect example. After days of listening to Elmo the Musical and Murray the Monster going to Yoga School on our DVR, it had become enough. The four of us needed to get out of the house as a family. Given the massive heat and a successful school trip he had taken, we eventually chose bowling. Everyone likes bowling. Hopefully he would too.
By the time we peeled him away from the television, he wasn’t in much of a happy mood. For starters, we live right near the bowling alley, so his fun car ride lasted all of five minutes. Even worse, he tends to cry when we turn into parking lots. I’m not entirely sure why that happens, but it happens. The first few times, I had no idea what was going on. Now, I’ve learned to brace myself for the mini-meltdowns as I slowly turn in. After some consoling, the tears stopped, but he was still pretty salty by the time he clawed down from his seat to exit. Hand in mine, he marched into the building like a pint-sized prisoner heading to Old Sparky.
The bowling alley was practically empty at noon on a Sunday, so no one noticed when he defiantly decided to sit on the floor just outside our lane. He continued to do his monotone whine as my wife began entering our names for the game. I put a ball in front of him and took a picture in case this outing met an early demise.
It remained this way until his turn. The third in our rotation, Lucas had the luxury of both bumpers and a ramp for his roll. As he warily walked up to the lane, he still seemed miserable. I silently hoped it would just suddenly get better out of nowhere.
Then it did.
With a smile on his face, he pushed the ball and watched as it sailed down to the pins. When it knocked them down, we all cheered. The smile on his face spoke volumes and we continued on for an awesome nine frames.
Yes, I know bowling has ten frames. The thing is, Lucas had a great time up until the last one. For some reason, he didn’t want to continue on after the ninth. When we attempted to get him to approach the ramp, he leaned back into his chair and whined. A year or so ago, we would have tried to insist that he finish and wound up in a gutter war. This time, we clapped and allowed his sister to take his turn.
At the end of the day, we had an amazing family moment. The kids, lumped together as a team, came in second. I – I’m proud to say – won. That’s how dad rolls.
The point, though, is that this fantastic memory almost didn’t happen. Had we allowed our fears of his unhappiness stop us, we never would have walked into the alley amidst his whines. I would have reminded myself that it would be wasted money for an activity he seemed to hate and left for the comfort of Sesame Street reruns.
On the flip-side, it would have been easy for us to get upset at his insistence of tapping out early. On frame ten, we could have pushed the party one step too far and forced a crying fit. One decision like that could have turned this pleasant day into something we wince back on in our memories.
It would have been so easy to miss this moment. Whether we chickened out at the start or pushed an extended ending, bowling with Lucas might never have produced the memory that it did. We didn’t do either of those things and ended up having a pretty awesome day.
That’s not to say that we have him all figured out. I can’t even imagine how many great days we just missed out on by running early or pushing late. Finding the proper balance in between is key in our family to finding our great moments together. Autism spectrum or not, every kid wants to have fun. It takes time to figure out how to make that happen.
We’ll keep trying. Sometimes we’ll miss. Hopefully more times we won’t. We won’t always know when that happens, but we know that on Sunday, we didn’t. You can’t ask for much more than that.