Parents are used to knowing why their children, especially as they get older, do the things they do. Ask any mother or father why their kid took a year off of college or still hasn’t settled down and they will gladly give you an immediate response. Whether “he’s just off to find himself” or “her standards are too high”, the responses are usually well thought-out, even if not entirely true.
When you have a child who is non-verbal with Autism, you have to give up that luxury. Sure, I can make up reasons to tell people that Lucas does the things he does, but in many cases, I can’t even begin to imagine an acceptable answer.
I didn’t realize how I had abandoned that parental perk until the day I found myself on a plane ride home from Disney World. My son was all jacked up like a Red Bull addict as he hooted and howled on the mostly quiet plane. While I did my best to quiet him, I also accepted that there was a limitation to what I could do.
I was wedged in the center of a three seat row and the man on my opposite side was as nice as could be. He took an interest in Lucas, offered him his plane snacks, and talked to me about his own grown children. It turned what could have been a miserable experience into something somewhat palatable.
During all of this, Lucas was playing his “Peek-a-Boo Pals” iPad app. It’s basically a string of Jack-in-the-Boxes with various animals. He swipes right, swipes up, an animal pops out with its trademark noise, and he moves to the next one. Whenever one comes out, he lets out one big giant clap. For a while, the horse made him cry. I’m not sure what the heck that was about. The whole process, though, is very rhythmic. Flick – boop – boop- meow – CLAP! Repeat. Anyone watching would think it was the opening scenes of a STOMP song. You expect Bobby McFerrin to run in and start beatboxing next to him.
I’ve learned to tune out this particular stimming performance art years ago. When it first began, I tried holding his hands. I tried asking him what he was doing. I even tried joining in the game. None of that worked. He still does it today as he did it then. It’s just become something I accept that he does on the now rare occasions that he plays that game.
That’s why I was so surprised when the guy next to me leaned in and asked:
Is that part of his game? Like he has to clap when the animals pop out?
It took a few seconds for me to answer. The whole thing had just become something he does. To someone else, it might look like he’s playing something. I could have just gone with that. But, I didn’t. I don’t do that anymore.
No. I don’t know why he does it. He just gets excited maybe.
It’s both challenging and freeing to be able to say those words. As a father, I want to pretend I know everything about my kid because, well, I try to. I’ve learned his favorite things, much like I did with his sister, but without the benefit of being able to ask with words. It was a difficult task at times but a natural one too. Spending time with your child leads to knowledge like that.
I even figured out some of his stimming moments. When he starts and stops his Sesame Street videos at seemingly random times, some aren’t random. I pinpointed sound effects, like the “wooosh” that happens before a flashback, as some of the reasons he pauses it. It took a while, but I discovered that one. Some others, though, I know I probably won’t. That’s OK, though.
Admitting I don’t know something about my child might be difficult, but it’s necessary. It’s necessary because the days when I made up nonsense excuses only felt worse.
I remember back when he was still toddling and his delays where starting to become move evident to others. Friends and acquaintances would extend a handshake or wave. He’d stare up at them with a non-verbal “What?” Then, in the midst of the silence, they would offer us a get-out-of-handshake free card.
Aw. He must just be tired.
Huh? It’s three in the afternoon. They know he’s not tired. I know he’s not tired. He’s literally jumping up and down. The first few times, though, you go with it.
Yeah, he had a long day.
Then my stomach would hurt. I hated doing that. He didn’t have a long day. He watched Sesame Street, took a walk, and ate a banana. That’s an easy day even by a three-year old’s standards. Making up reasons had to feel worse than any “I don’t know” could.
And, I learned I was right the first time I said, “No. He just doesn’t shake hands or wave yet. He’s happy to see you though. Say hi, Lucas.” Then I’d move his hand in a waving motion for him. I like to think that by confessing that he couldn’t do it rather than pretending otherwise actually helped him eventually learn to wave hello on his own. He does it today because of all the days I guided his hand in reply.
I’m his Dad and I love him, even if I’m not sure why he does or acts certain ways. I don’t know why he won’t high five you. I don’t know why he cries during the roller-skating scene on Elmo’s World. I don’t know why he covers his head with a blanket during random parts of Ready, Steady, Wiggles. He just does and that’s OK.
I can be there for him, though. If he breaks into tears during Laurie Berkner’s Dinosaur Song, I don’t dismiss it or walk away. I sit with him, rub his head, and tell him it will be alright. Just because I don’t know why he reacts a certain way to something, that doesn’t mean I can’t support him during it.
I don’t know everything about my son. Then again, I don’t know everything about everyone. I’d like to learn as much as possible, though. It might take a while, but that’s fine. I love him and I don’t mind spending the rest of my life trying to find out.