I never wanted to be the parent hovering over his kids while they played. I, just like so many others, decried the downfall of society as moms and dads prevented their kids from getting any possible bump they could. After all, the bruises, boo-boos, and dusting yourself off again are all part of growing up. I know they were for me.
So when my daughter was born, I made it a priority to let her have her own fun. Dad didn’t need to helicopter over her head and make sure all was fair for her in the swingset wars. Sure, I watched from afar mostly, but she grew on her own, played on her own, and learned from her own mistakes.
I wanted to take the same approach to my son but learned early on that it might not be entirely possible. As a non-verbal child with Autism, Lucas is more apt to take off on a moment’s notice. We’ve had more than a few public situations where he would begin his trademark clapping while slowly walking away backwards. I’d find myself calling, “Lucas. No. Come on, buddy. Lucas. Where are you going? Lucas? Come back here. Lucas! No. Come back.” People would watch me like a stage show and I would watch as his tiny body got tinier and tinier as he moonwalked into the horizon. It all would lead to me doing a frustrated sprint to catch him before he applauds himself backwards right out of the neighborhood.
The day I realized that hovering near my son wasn’t a choice, but a necessity was during one of our infamous Music Together classes. That class represents a strange time for me because, when started, we didn’t have an Autism diagnosis, but when we were finished, we did. I think of those musical hours as a transition period and, while it was probably a nice Saturday morning distraction for some of the parents, it was a major time period for our family and an introduction to how life was going to play out.
I wanted Lucas to enjoy the class just like the other children. I’d encourage him to play with the instruments or put the scarves back in the bag during clean-up. He usually showed little interest and would either lay on the floor with his hands nestled behind his head like the doodle of a sleeping stick man or else he’d try to run for the door. On those running days, I’d simply wrestle him back to our mat where, through giggles, he’d try to wiggle away for the rest of the hour. Most of the time, I was exhausted by the drive home.
As I mentioned though, it was still early on and I was still figuring out what he was and wasn’t capable of. Like most parents, though, I wanted to give my child the benefit of the doubt as often as possible. The last thing I wanted was to stifle his independent spirit. So, one day as he started to crawl away from me before class began, I let him.
Keep in mind, my son was a fairly large two year old. People in the class were obviously starting to notice his lack of spoken and receptive language, but never mentioned it. In fact, they had all been nothing but nice, so when he scuttled over to the husband and wife with the infant baby, I smiled. They smiled too. There were smiles all around. As their little girl was rolling around on the mat below, Lucas popped up right in the middle of this happy family and looked up with a huge grin. From across the circle, I watched in joy as the chuckling mom leaned right into his face and said, “Well, hello there.”
Then, as I continued to watch from across the circle, my joy jolted into horror. I sat stunned as my son put both hands behind his head and, in his typical stickman position, laid down…right on their baby.
Yes. You read that right. He laid down on their baby. Like every story I write about here, this is completely true. It isn’t a funny anecdote I imagined in the shower this morning. This was real and this really happened in my life. It’s a sight I will never forget. With a pivot of his body and two hands tucked behind his head, Lucas laid his large noggin straight down onto this tiny baby’s stomach like he was soaking up rays on the beach. It was mortifying on levels I never even knew were possible.
The nearly newborn baby surprisingly didn’t cry, but the audible gasps around the room filled that silence. Both parents opened their eyes wide and sat there speechless. I sprung from my seat and snatched him up. After some very awkward apologies, we took part in an even more awkward hour of singing and tried to put the whole experience out of our heads.
He hadn’t done it on purpose or, thankfully, caused any damage. In fact, none of the moments I push to prevent him from doing are ever done maliciously. Rather, they are just Lucas doing what Lucas does. He sees the world through his own lens and there are times that his actions aren’t acceptable. Sometimes they can be awkward moments like baby-head surfing while others can be distracted moments of danger that could leave him hurt if I’m not there to lend a hand.
That’s why I do it. Make no mistake, just because I’m chasing him through a playground or running after him in a department store, that doesn’t mean I want to be. Much like those parents I’m speaking to at the time, who have their own kids darting around in circles while they analyze the latest episode of The Bachelor with each other, I want to let my son do his own thing. Who doesn’t? Because of that, it’s caused me to me abandon my better judgment at times to give us both a bit of “freedom”.
Trial and error has taught me that’s not always the right choice. Lucas’s ability to take off on his own doesn’t come down to a definite list of do’s and don’ts. It requires observation on my part and some real case-to-case decisions. The day I took him into Gamestop so I could inquire about a new video game proved that point.
As I stood in line, holding my agitated son, he struggled to break free. Lucas had gotten bigger through the years and, hovering around four, was getting harder and harder to keep calm in my arms. That’s when my brain vetoed the decision my gut had made and said, “Let him go. He’s a big boy. It’s a minute. He’ll be fine.” So, just as I reached the front of the line, I placed him on the carpet.
Do you know those cartoons where the small character will be running full speed until another character lifts them up? You see their little feet still sprinting at a record pace in mid-air and then, when they are put down, they instantly dart forward? That is exactly what happened here. It was like a scene in Scooby Doo. The second I placed him on the floor like a wind-up toy that had been turned to full blast, he took off…
…right into the wall.
The shelf fell. Games crashed down on top of him. He let out an annoyed whiny cry and I turned to the guy behind the counter, who’s mouth now hung open in surprise. I simply returned a deadpan look of frustration, walked over to my now-crying son, and scooped him up from the floor. With Lucas again in my arms, we left without saying a word.
The bottom line is that as a parent, it’s my job to assess the situations my children are in. Whether on or off the spectrum, you don’t cradle your child in a safe environment and you don’t send them off running blindly into a dangerous one. That’s something that Lucas taught me and a lesson that can be applied to anything in their lives. When I’m needed, I’m needed. When I’m not, I’m not. Differentiating between the two is my responsibility and, when it comes to this, I have to trust my instincts first.
I don’t place him into harm’s way in order to “prove” that he can do it or achieve some personal victory. To jeopardize his safety because I worry that someone might think poorly of him, see me as hovering dad, or to simply give myself “a break” from parenting is wrong. None of those things are important. In those situations, my son’s safety is the only thing that’s important. It takes the removal of ego and the acceptance that parties can often become more work than fun to accept that.
It may sound like a sacrifice, but to any real parent, it’s not even a thought. I love my children and want to guide them whenever I’m genuinely needed and my presence isn’t stopping them from growing on their own. It’s the reason I had them, how I show my love, and, no matter what others may think, it’s why I’ll hover for as long as my son needs me to.