My son would be content to spend his entire life in the confines of our den, clapping along to YouTube kids. It’s his favorite hobby and, in many ways, his addiction. He’s constantly chasing the Sesame Street playlist dragon and trying to scratch an itch that only starting and stopping his favorite videos can reach.
So, I make grand plans. I warn him that, “We’re going to go out soon, buddy.” I will scour the Internet for local events and, as I read each one, scratch them off due to the knowledge that he will hate it. Street fair? Nah. Too loud. Planetarium? Nah. Too much sitting. Petting zoo. Nah. Too much petting. You get the idea. No matter where we go, it’s too much something for my little fella.
When your child is non-verbal with Autism, you can’t ask where they want to go. Instead, you have to make the decisions for them, so that’s exactly what I end up doing. Because of that, our plans usually end with a trip to a mall or our personal favorite – Target.
I know that shopping is an important rite of passage and that, one day, he will need to do this on his own. Still, it feels less like fun and more like a chore for me, so I feel bad dragging him along. We manage to make it into something memorable, though, and I rest easy on the fact that I’m showing him how to do an important task.
The main reason for this particular big red department store is that they have specialty carts for a boy his size. A gigantic seat like my eight-year-old has stuffed into his sweatpants can only fit into an equally giant seat attached to a shopping wagon. Luckily, Target has just such a cart with a front facing chair that I can pour his giant body into. We make awkward eye contact for most of the trip and while it resembles an electric chair, complete with straps, we make it work.
If it’s not available, Lucas will hoof it. We walk together and, although the trip is kept short, we manage to grab a few things. It can be disappointing, though. He’s happy for a minute or two but ultimately can’t wait to get home. He seems lost in the sea of scented candles and Up and Up brand paper towels. I feel for the guy. I can get that way too.
This past Monday, though, things were different. We arrived at the store and, upon finding our magic cart gone, had to call an audible. We would be walking together once again. My hope was that, if he could, we’d be able to stay longer than usual. We had things to buy.
I couldn’t help but smile as he did his trademark march down the aisles. I thought about his pictures from school on Friday. His class had taken one of their field trips to the local supermarket. They had the kids all practice shopping and even get to buy one item. Afterwards, they’d go to the diner. It’s pretty adorable and the pic they sent of him perusing the salsa put a smile on my face.
Looking back, I should have put two and two together. Those trips, which weren’t limited to that one instance, have been preparing him for moments like this. Picking out salsa was just the start. My son was learning life skills that would translate into Target runs like the one we were on now.
I could tell immediately that things were different by the way he scanned the shelves. It reminded me of the way he scans his communication device for pictures of his favorite things. For the first time in all our grocery outings, he was focused and tuned in to his surroundings. Rather than coming along for the ride, my boy was a willing co-pilot.
When we hit the juice aisle, he walked out on his own and found a bottle of apple juice. He picked it up and carried it over to me. It was half the size of his body and he teetered as he came near.
You want that? Juice? OK. Put it in the cart.
And he did.
I was so impressed that when we hit the chips section, I stood back and waved my arm in the air like Mr. Myagi in front of a parking lot full of vintage cars. He was my little Daniel-san and seemed excited as I told him:
And he did. Cheese Doodles. I knew he would. He loves those things. If I send them to school, he comes home covered in orange dust. It’s his way of saying, “I like ‘em.” I know, buddy. You’re orange.
When we passed the frozen food, he did a stop, turn, and pivot. I followed suit and pulled the cart to a stop as he approached the pizzas and pointed to one near the top. Once again, I obliged and threw them in to our things-to-buy pile.
At this point, I couldn’t have been prouder. He had found a slew of things that he wanted and, although I probably would have purchased them all anyway, he helped pick them. He had done a great job, but it wasn’t until we started to leave the grocery area that I learned how important these new life skills truly were.
That’s where Lucas found his precious. It was a plastic box of Cinnamon Coffee Cake Muffins and, to him, they might as well be gold. He couldn’t get to them fast enough and was insistent that I take them into our cart. Truth be told, I never would have noticed them, much less bought them. I was so focused on getting to the checkout and going home that I would have walked past them a million times.
He wouldn’t, though. These were his number one item and, thanks to the skills he had been learning in school, he knew to spot them and get me to buy them. Because of that, he wound up with the food item he wanted most and wouldn’t have had otherwise.
The moment the cashier scanned the box, I cracked those things open and began breaking off pieces. I handed him some in the car and on the way home. The next day, I put one in his lunch. Cinnamon Coffee Cake Muffins had become the symbol of his independence and the reward for his hard work. I couldn’t be prouder.
On the way out, I nudged him and said, “I bet people are looking at us and asking, “Who’s that man over there…with his dad?” Haha. Right, right?” And I elbowed him, but he ignored me. I think he would have even if he was neurotypical, though.
There will be more Target runs and more muffins to buy. My boy’s triumph is less about going through the motions and more about being his own person. If his voice never comes from his mouth, he needs to find his own ways of being heard. Thanks to moments like this, he will. Today, cinnamon coffee cake. Tomorrow, the world.