Cleaning Up His Messes

I wasn’t sure what I was going to write about when I woke up yesterday. Typically, these blogs are written the day before they are posted and I rarely know what topic I’ll use until that time. It gives me a bit of anxiety, but the good kind of anxiety that keeps you on your toes.

I sat at my computer and began going over possibilities within minutes of waking up. There was the act of getting old, missed milestones, and many other stories from years gone by that I could analyze. Although so many were swirling through my mind, none of them seemed to fit. So, I came out of my home office, headed towards the stairs to refill my coffee, and saw this.


Yeah. For those of you unsure what you are looking at, it’s the staircase in my house and it’s covered in a cascading stream of Captain Crunch Peanut Butter cereal. The box is tossed at the base of the front door, the bag is almost completely empty, and, mixed between the pieces, are squashed particles of cereal dust. Not pictured here is my non-verbal son, Lucas, on the couch, clapping along to the television. Also not pictured, my bright red head of frustration.

This is all before nine on a Sunday. I’m still in a dreamlike state and already cursing over a clogged vacuum as I do my fatherly duty. It didn’t take long to clean it all up, but it wasn’t about the time. It was about having to do it at all. I crawled on my hands and knees and each time I heard a “crunch” from underneath me, I grumbled even louder.

Lucas does this. He grabs food from the cabinet and, if he doesn’t have a hold on it, it’ll wind up everywhere. Watching him eat chicken nuggets is like watching a newlywed couple eat rice as they exchange their vows. There’s more on the floor than there is in his mouth, but he doesn’t care as long as he gets any of it down his gullet.

We once had a specialist look at us with a smirk upon hearing a Lucas-mess story and ask, in a self-assured tone.

…and who cleaned it up?

My wife and I looked at each other. I wasn’t sure what point she was making, but I took the credit.

I did.

Her smirk grew and she offered this great advice.

I’m asking because HE should be the one to clean it up.

To this, I stared back with a straight face that counteracted hers.

If I have him clean food up, he’s going to eat it. I tried.

Yeah. That was one of those trial and error things. Call Lucas over to retrieve discarded pieces of hamburger rolls or pasta from the floor and he’s going to see it as an invitation to a bonus floor-dinner. I learned early on that having him help with clean-up is something we need to reserve for blocks, Legos, and other less-delicious messes. In every one of those cases, he does.

Had I brought him over to help with the cereal, he would have squashed the rest beneath his tiny toes and gobbled up what was left behind. I would end up even more upset than when I began and, since he hadn’t done this on purpose, he wouldn’t understand whatever lesson I was trying to teach. It would have taken an annoying situation and made it into a disgusting and infuriating one – for both of us. I was conscious of that.

Don’t get me wrong, I made sure to let him know it was wrong. I pointed to the cereal and gave him the ol’ “no, no, no” finger. He seemed to get it. Even if he didn’t, it was the best I could do for a situation that was already over. Had I caught him carrying the box or making it rain, so to speak, I could have driven the point home. In this case, the act was over and to him, it was ancient history.

cer1I could totally get angry at him if I wanted to, but I didn’t. There’s always a voice in my head during these situations that says, “He can’t ask you for cereal, jerky. He’s just trying his best to get the things he wants.” Inevitably, I’ll feel bad, lecture myself about how I don’t understand how hard it is to have Autism in a world made for those without it, and search for different ways to handle the situation. As I clean up his spills, I beat myself up. It would be so much easier to be angry if I thought he wasn’t trying.

The thing is, though, he is trying. For a long time, he didn’t. When he was younger, we used to call him Baby Godzilla with how he’d tear through the house with no regard for any objects in his path. He was the monster of the living room and nothing could stop him. Giving Lucas a bowl of chips was like throwing them into an industrial strength fan. We worked hard to break him of that habit and show him how to be aware of his own surroundings. He worked hard too. He still does today.

He is aware of what is expected of him. If I leave a bowl of snacks on the table and he wants them by the TV, he’ll pick them up in the most delicate way you’ve ever seen and slowly walk them over to where he wants them. As he places them down gingerly, it’s enough to make you lead out an audible “Aw.” It’s the most gentle thing you’ll ever see.

Of course, sometimes things go haywire and you end up with a waterfall of Captain Crunch. Cereal disasters happen. So it goes.

I’m not going to clean up all his messes in life. The same can be said for his sister. His mistakes will be his own and, if he can prevent them, he needs to learn how. I will, however, clean up the ones he needs me to and the ones that he tried his best to avoid on his own. Like most parents to children on or off the spectrum, I recognize when my son is trying and when he’s not.

When there’s a lesson to learn, I’ll be there to teach it. When there’s not and he simply needs my help, I’ll be there for that too…with a smile on my face and cereal between my toes.