My ten-year-old daughter has attitude. She’s a sassy kid filled with sarcasm that will sneak up on you at a moment’s notice. Sometimes it’s funny. Sometimes it’s not. Either way, it’s unmistakable. She can push your buttons.
I tell people this and they smile because, “That’s the age.” Kids start to get that way over time and there’s no escaping it. It’s a part of parenting.
I’m sure many will read these words and consider me “lucky”. After all, my son has Autism and is non-verbal. He’s still working toward speech and certain skills other children might take for granted. They assume that his attitude is usually pleasant and sometimes unhappy, but never abrasive.
Those people need to come to my house for an afternoon. I’m not talking about meltdown tantrums or a swipe in frustration. I’m talking pure little boy attitude. Language or not, my guy can sling snark with the best of them. He just expresses it in more creative ways.
His favorite way to communicate his wants is to take your hand. If he’s hungry for chips, he will take your hand and place it on the chips. If he’s in the mood to watch a show, he will take do the same with the remote. It’s simple, to the point, and communicates his desires in the fastest way possible.
So when I sat beside him on the floor while he was playing on his iPad, I didn’t think anything of him reaching over and putting his hand on mine. He grabbed my fingers with his and then, like they were five pieces of garbage, he flung them away. The whole time, he never stopped looking at the iPad.
Obviously, I was confused. My first thought was that he was just being distracted. Halfway through his motion towards whatever he needed, he must have had his attention diverted. That’s why he did it. So I tapped him on the shoulder. Again, he didn’t look up, but I said, “What’s the matter, buddy? What do you want?”
Once more, he took my hand and, with an identical movement from before, tossed it aside like week old fish. It was like his non-verbal way of telling me to go walk into traffic.
That’s when I realized. Oh, he’s not being distracted. He’s being a jerk.
Still, though, I pressed on. I tried to look over at what he was doing and keep myself involved. That’s when he gave me the final brush off. He took his iPad in his lap and physically turned his body away from me. He didn’t even have the courtesy to walk a few feet away. With a simple pivot of his hips, he was now free of my annoyance and his shoulder blade was in my face. That’s when I left him to do his thing.
Just as Lucas has many ways to communicate, he has an equal number of ways to give attitude. Aside from his hand-grab-toss-pivot game, he has a communication iPad that he uses for specific requests. Nine times out of ten, he wants food. On this one night, though, he didn’t.
I know because all I wanted was for him to sit and eat dinner. He had been strung out on his blue entertainment iPad all day, flipping through Youtube Kids videos and Elmo’s Monster Maker since, what felt like, the crack of dawn. It was now dinner and I was watching this manic kid, overwhelmed with his Sesame Street viewing, unable to sit still for a slice of pizza. I took his Elmo machine away and kept patting the chair for him to sit down.
He wasn’t happy. He let out his long-sustained whine and looked at me as if I had just set his best friend on fire. His eyes were pleading, his voice was grating, and he was anything but happy. So, in an effort to reinforce language, I took his communication iPad and pressed the buttons for “Eat Pizza”.
I pressed the picture of the stick man eating and the picture of a cheesy slice. Then, I tapped the whole sentence and the robot lady voice repeated it all.
Suddenly his face morphed from desperate begging to smug annoyance. He took the iPad from my hand, searched through the menus, and then found his button. He stared me right in the eyes as he tapped his demand. The same robot woman who was on my side seconds earlier was now my enemy.
He gave me a matter-of-fact expression and, although I like to give in when he uses his communication device, I couldn’t. Just because he’s using the correct way of asking doesn’t mean he gets anything at anytime. That’s the best way to raise your kid to murder the neighborhood.
I waved my finger back and forth in our “no, no, no” motion and repeated the words. Then, I reached over, found my buttons on the screen, and touched them again.
This time, he didn’t even look away from me. He locked eyes and, through muscle memory alone, found his request through a series of menus. In a swipes of the finger and with the biggest “Forget You” face, he pressed it again.
I swear I could hear the robot lady’s tone change. I know it didn’t, but it definitely seemed like she was being ruder about it now.
That’s when I realized I was having my first argument with Lucas using words through his communication iPad. It was the exact same scenario I had countless times before with his sister only with a robotic mediator. While the situation may seem very different to an outside observer, as a father in that moment, it felt exactly the same.
It was hard not to give him a hug and congratulate ourselves on doing this. It was kind of a big deal. I had to play it cool, though. Mixed signals are a real thing and unless I stood my ground, I could end up with a murdered neighborhood on my conscience. I told him he did a good job but patted the chair for him to sit. He let out his long-drawn high-pitched complaint whine and reluctantly stuffed some pizza in his face. Poor kid forced to eat greasy pizza. Such an abusive dad.
I correct this behavior when it happens and try to keep his temperament happy, but I must be honest. As a father who, at one time, worried that I would never have a personal relationship with my son, moments like this are moments of victory. Sure, I don’t want him to fight with me or be rude, but I’m beyond happy that he has those abilities. There was a time when I didn’t think it would ever be possible.
I may feel like a dope sitting there with his back to me or using a robot voice to debate pizza etiquette, but, I’m the happiest dope in the world. My son gives me attitude that I once thought he never would be able to. For another child, it might just be an eyerolling part of growing up. For Lucas, though, it’s special and just another one of many things he has taught me to never take for granted.