My seven year old son has always had a child safety gate on his bedroom door. It serves two purposes. One is to protect him from the stairs and other nighttime dangers. The other is to protect us from his tiny little hands tapping us awake to get his iPad at two in the morning. It’s a very important gate.
It’s difficult to fault him for this behavior. After all, he’s non-verbal and has Autism. So, it’s not like he’s breaking a promise. I have no assurances on his part that he won’t do these things. It’s just his natural instinct. I imagine that if he could speak, he might say, “Dude, I’m not agreeing to that. There is no way I am not busting through this gate and getting what I want.”
I know this because a few months back, he started to literally bust through the gate to get what he wants. After moving to the new house, we thought we would simply use pressure to fence off his doorway. There’s no need to poke our new home full of holes, we said. He’ll be just fine, we said. Sure.
Unfortunately, there wasn’t much surprise when Lucas broke out his Incredible Hulk moves and started rampaging through it like a little flesh-colored Kool-Aid Man. We’d hear a crash and run over just in time to see him speed walking out from the rubble. He was an action star.
OK, fine. The kid wants to play, we’ll play. He might have brute strength but I have screwdrivers and hinges. Suddenly fine with the idea of poking holes in the house, we installed the gate properly. Now it was pretty much unsmashable. He had no choice but to abide by its confining demands. After all, what’s he gonna do? Crawl through the one-foot gap between the bottom and floor?
Within days, Lucas had become a prisoner escaping from a 1920s jail. He’d fall to his belly and waddle through like a Survivor immunity challenge. The faint sounds of Sesame Street would ring out at one in the morning, I’d assume I was going insane, and walk into the living room to find him, half asleep, swiping an iPad that still had its charging cord dangling from the port. I’d take him by the hand, tell him “no, no, no”, and lead him back to his room. Sorry, kid. The tribe has spoken.
Alright. This system isn’t cutting it. Step three. It was time to get the other gate out of the closet and double them up. Close the first one, pressure in the second to block the bottom, and say good night. That’ll do it, right? As long as I keep an eye on his monitor and stay vigilant, all will be OK. After all, what’s he gonna do? Fling himself over the top of a gate that’s pretty much the same size he is? What’s he supposed to be? Some sort of Olympic long-jumper?
Give that boy a medal. The very first night, he was doing pancake-face dives into the hallway.
That was one fling too many. I was done and made a drastic decision. No more barricades. We went from this gate being a symbol of safety to a potential death trap. If he was going to break free from his room anyway, I’d rather he walk out the door than hurl himself into the wall. Like the walls of Jericho, those child safety gates came a tumblin’ down.
We all braced ourselves for the first night. Having shared hotel rooms with Lucas on vacation, we know how horrible it can be to have this half-pint Freddy Krueger invading our dreams. There was a lot of potential for this to be a painful evening.
This is where I say, “Oh, but I believed in him. I knew he could do it because he looks me in the eye and I see wonder and joy and hope. Puppies. Unicorns. Rainbows.” Nope.
To be honest, I didn’t believe he could handle it. In fact, I imagined the worst scenarios playing out. His safety wasn’t a concern as all the things that could do major harm had been taken out of the equation. The gate to the basement steps was locked. Sharp objects were out of reach. Our door, across the hallway, was open and his video monitor was playing. Danger wasn’t the issue. All of that was working great.
It was him. It was how he would act if he woke up that was a concern. Would he scream all night? Run from room to room trying to wake us? Knock things over? There were a million possible ways to ruin our slumber. I believed he would do all of them.
Yet, I also knew that barriers weren’t teaching him anything. Being physically restrained from running out of his room only taught him to stay there as long as there were physical restraints. If I wanted him to learn and grow, I had to give him the freedom to do just that…even if I had sacrifice sleep for it.
Those little leaps of faith are how we do everything with Lucas. There was a first time he sat by himself at a restaurant. There was a first time he walked to his room because we told him to. There was a first time we tearfully put him on a school bus alone. Every single time, I had to take a leap of faith in order to believe he could do it.
Sometimes he was successful. Sometimes he wasn’t. But he tried and, in almost every case, eventually understood what he needed to do. He needs to learn how to live without gates. We all do.
Night one wasn’t bad. He only wandered out half-asleep once. When I caught him, he stood perfectly still with his back to me. I only assume he thought that would make him invisible. When I returned him to his bed, he stayed there until morning. I actually had to wake him up for school, which is rare. I was impressed.
So…victory? Nah. Night two was worse than night one. He was up and down and all around. At five o’clock, I gave up and brought my pillow into his room. I spent the next hour laying in his bed and keeping him from dashing out the door. It was tough. It was also literally last night. I’m pretty tired as I sit here typing this.
He’ll get it. I know he will. He’s done it before. He’ll do it again. Believing he’s capable of doing something right now and believing he’s capable of learning to do it eventually are two very different things. I know he can eventually handle whatever I expect of him. It just takes a little leap of faith on my part to start him on his way.