Teaching Him The Patience He Taught Me

Having a non-verbal child with Autism teaches you a lot about patience. It forces you to accept that sometimes things don’t happen on your timeline. In fact, sometimes things don’t happen at all. It doesn’t matter how much you want them or how you convince yourself that you need them in order to survive. There are some moments that force you to let go of control before you lose control.

We went through this for years. We’re still going through it. Whether we were karate fighting each other through an old-school haircut death match or enduring a massive meltdown during an elementary school orchestra concert, Lucas and I have been through the ringer and back. Situations where outsiders might be tempted to scream and yell require a different approach. Screaming and yelling doesn’t work with my son. Most times, the only answer is to be calm myself and let him see that he just needs to chill out.

So, I do that. I squash a lot of my own personal frustrations down to a place inside where all the bad things die. I paste on a plastic expression and let him flail until he’s finished. We meet up again on the other side and the day goes much better.

He taught me that patience. Sure, my life had started to mellow me out around the time he showed up, but I still had that instinct to let my agitation boil over in times of extreme frustration. He showed me, though, that it didn’t help accomplish our goal. If anything, it just increased my stress level. Yelling at him to go to bed, for example, is beyond futile. I’d put him down and within minutes, he’s up and walking around the house.

Lucas! Go to bed!

He rushed back in, but a minute later, he’s back out.

I said go to bed! Go back!

Another minute down and he’s back out only now he’s hunched over and trying to make himself appear smaller. I sometimes wonder if he thinks it makes him invisible.

Go! To! Bed!

A minute later…oh you get the point. If it was a comedy cartoon, he’d back the fourth time with a Halloween costume on. The truth is that in order for him to know that he needs to go to bed, you need to calmly redirect him back to it and, after some repetition, he eventually starts to do it on his own. That’s it. Yelling, screaming, angrily scolding – they have no effect. They seem to make him think, “Oh. I guess that’s a part of all of this. I better get up again in a second so he can yell some more.”

patient.jpgI didn’t appreciate that lesson at the time, but I do now. My non-verbal son taught me patience. Sure, he did it by driving me batty at times, but I learned how to deal with him better. In fact, I learned how to deal with the world better. My calm approach to Lucas has spilled out into my everyday life. I’m a kinder and gentler person. Sometimes.

In the last few months, my son has really begun to take to his communication device. His Proloquo iPad app allows him to ask for specific things and get them. For a non-verbal boy of eight, it must be like unlocking a mystery to life. Suddenly, he doesn’t have to accept the cup of water he’s been given. He can ask for apple juice.

Oh boy, does he ever ask for apple juice.

Hand Lucas a cup of water. He will hand it right back to you, find his iPad, and press “Apple Juice.” If you say, “No, we’re drinking water now.” He will return to the iPad and type “I. Want. Apple Juice.” If you insist he drink the water, he will yank the straw from the top of the cup and hand it back to you as if to say, “Oh. Look. It’s broken.”

He stalks me with his apple juice requests.  I hear him in the den as I sit in my office. Through the din of Sesame Street videos and Leapfrog laptop sounds, I’ll make out the robotic lady voice saying those two magic words.

Apple juice.

Then, within seconds, he’s behind me, reaching over to tap my hand as I type on the keyboard. If I tell him to wait, he will lock his fingers around mine, mid-typing, and try to pull me from my chair.  By now, I will try to be more forceful.

Lucas. No. You need to wait. Just wait.

I put my hand, palm up, in front of my chest. It’s the signal for “wait” that I started a year or so ago with an exaggerated exclamation of “waaaaaaaait!” It made him laugh at the time, but he understood. He knows “wait.”  So, he leaves.

Almost no time at all goes by before I hear the Jetsons maid voice ring out yet again.

I. Want. Apple juice.

This time, when he comes to check, he sheepishly pokes his head around the door jam like he’s in a horror movie. If we lock eyes, I’ll tell him to “go and wait.” At this point, he’ll let out a whine but he’ll listen. Of course, he’s back a minute later. It’s almost as if he can’t comprehend why, when I know exactly what he wants, I’m not jumping up to get it as soon as he asks every time. He thinks I’m his employee.

Patience is an issue for my boy, much as it was for me. I see it in his interactions with me and my family, but also in his work with our in-home therapists and teachers. He has a hard time processing his frustrations the same way his dad did for decades. But his teachers are working on it with him, just like I am, and slowly he’s starting to show that he can endure the waiting without having a meltdown. Every day, I’m prouder and prouder of his progress.

It won’t happen overnight for him. It didn’t for me either. Ironically, you need patience when learning patience. If there’s one thing I know, it’s that he can accomplish some pretty unexpected things when he puts his mind to it. This is one of those things. It’ll come. We just need to be patient.