He’s Not Being Mean

Reading an online post about Autism from someone not personally affected by it can give me a bit of a chill. It’s a rare glimpse into how others might perceive my non-verbal son, Lucas, and our family.

One such posting that’s been etched into my brain was about someone seeing his cousin with Autism strike his father in the face for taking too long to put his Christmas present together. This person lamented about how “spoiled” his cousin was and how bad he felt for his uncle’s sad life. The replies were more judgmental as they went on. People were outraged, disgusted, and questioning his cousin’s place in society. Hitting his Dad at Christmas? It was a shocking story that would cause most people to look down their noses in horror.

I’m not one of those people. I might not have the exact same experiences in my own life, but I have plenty that could be seen as similar. I never expected to be the person who would relate to a story like this, but I do.

meanWhile my son isn’t violent by any stretch of the imagination, he’s lashed out before. It comes during his lowest and most aggravated moments. I’ve attempted to take away a toy so we could have a family dinner or brought him into his bedroom for sleep, only to be walloped by a wild right hand as he breaks down. I’m not big on saying “only a parent with a child like him could understand this”, but this could be one of those cases. In the throes of a meltdown, anything is possible.

An outburst like that is the last step of his ultimate frustration and he does it only when all other avenues of communication fail him. I can’t speak for other children, just my own. But with Lucas, he doesn’t do it with the intention of hurting. It’s part of his emotional eruption. Still, it’s something that is absolutely not acceptable and a reaction we work hard to steer him away from. The only way to truly do that, though, is to give him as many outlets to communicate as possible. It’s a slow process, but one we’re building more every day.

You have to change a lot of your instincts during times like this. Growing up, I was taught that when getting hit first, it is your duty to “leave your mark”. For a rage-filled generation, the whole “you throw the first punch” approach is designed for us to defend ourselves and creates a knee-jerk internal reaction. In this case, though, things are different. I see the sadness in my son’s eyes. I can’t fathom how overwhelmed he must be in those rare moments. I hurt for him emotionally far more than I do for myself physically.

His most used maneuver is probably the windmill slaps. They don’t cause real damage, but they are his pint-sized attempt at hostility. He extends both his arms out and then, like a spinning top, twirls in place. His arms flap around and his body becomes a tornado. It’s his Mortal Kombat finishing move and, if it wasn’t so serious, it would be funny.

It’s serious because he’s only eight and while his windmills don’t sting now, they will very soon. I think about that when he goes into battle-mode. Before long, he’ll be an adult. The stranger at the supermarket he hits in the mouth won’t respond the way his loving family would. To paraphrase Oliver Wendell Holmes, he has the right to swing his arm until it hits the tip of your nose. Few people would be so forgiving if a grown man strikes them, verbal or otherwise. I wouldn’t expect them to be. Jails are filled with people who “didn’t mean any harm”. I know this. I am aware of this. I am deathly afraid of this.

It’s not just moments of extreme anger that could put the wrong image of my boy into people’s heads. Some of his reactions, borne from his lack of social graces and ways to express gratitude, could make others see him as “rude” too. He doesn’t need to hit you with his body in order to hit you with his attitude.

The best example is his drink requests. As soon as his water is empty, Lucas will come running over and begin tapping my arm incessantly. When I give him my attention, he’ll thrust his empty cup and walk away. Within seconds, he’s back and looking for his refill. This goes on non-stop until I eventually get up, walk up the stairs, fill it up, and return.

You’d think that getting his liquid happiness would bring about smiles. Nope. Instead, he reaches out and swipes it from my hand in one smooth motion like Mo of the Three Stooges grabbing a hammer. If he had the words, they’d be, “Gimme that, ya knucklehead! Why I oughta…!”

It can feel pretty insulting. So, in order to remind him of what needs to be done and make the situation less subservient for myself, I give my own “thanks” each time. That’s right. I get up, fill the water, and deliver it to him. Then, as my kid swipes it from my hands like a subway pickpocket, I respond, in a sing-songy voice, “Thank – you!” To an outsider, I look like I’m not only his slave, but I thank him for the honor. In reality, I’m just reinforcing what’s right.

Recently, Lucas began expanding the use of his communication device. We make him say complete sentences when requesting things and try to use it for more than just getting his way. The “talker” iPad isn’t just for saying “juice”. It’s for “hi” and “I am happy” and “I like Dad.” It’s also for “thank you.”

Whenever I give him something now, I try to leave the “thanks” to him. Sure, I might sing it along too, but I point towards the button and, even though he still tends to be grabby, his robotic vocalization of appreciation makes me smile far bigger than I can put into words.

My son isn’t rude. I think that’s the case for most non-verbal children. They’re trying to coexist on a planet that’s made for the squeakiest wheels. Imagine living in a world where so many emotions, needs, and thoughts are locked inside. Given that scenario, I’m surprised he’s not lashing out constantly. I can’t help but think I would be.

Since introducing it, having him press the “thank you” button hasn’t been a struggle. If anything, he’s happy to do it. As his Dad, I’m happy to hear it. It’s not that he didn’t want to say it before. It’s that he had no way to do so. Now he does. He thanks me. I get to say “you’re welcome”.

As long as we keep giving him the tools he needs and showing him how to use them, he can show the world the kind, polite, and loving person I know him to be. They’re gonna love him.