Finding family activities that both my non-verbal son with autism and my neurotypical daughter can enjoy together isn’t always easy. Their favorite activities don’t exactly line up. He’s not into Animal Crossing and Tik Tok. She’s not into pausing Elmo videos on the parts that make “whoosh” noises in between screen transitions. So, we search for middle ground.
Make no mistake, though, we find plenty of them. These fun events are the types of things that everyone might enjoy. As the weather heats up, we find ourselves heading out back for a day of wading pools, trampolining, and sprinkler mayhem.
I can’t help but snap pictures non-stop, all the time warning them to not get my phone wet. Still, it does, but I don’t care. The smiles on their faces and the bonding experiences are enough to carry us through the toughest of times. It often feels like their interests, usually miles apart, converge in these moments. Everyone is beaming with happiness.
Olivia will jump up and down on the trampoline while Lucas sits with his legs straight out and flies through the air with each bounce. He laughs and giggles, urging her to continue when she tries to stop. Eventually, they wind up in a prone position, laying on each other as if they just survived a street fight. I eagerly begin snapping pictures that resemble the cover of an alternative rock album.
From there, they wind up in the wading pool. Lucas lightly taps the water as his sister jumps in and out. Sometimes, she’ll take handfuls of water and toss it with a mighty splash. He watches excitedly, trying to imitate the movements himself. If she tries to stop, much like the jumping, he takes her hands and moves them himself in an effort to make her continue. They laugh together as Dad, once again, snaps pictures.
If we’re lucky, we might even move to the sprinkler for the final round of the outdoor jamboree. With so many hose attachments at the ready, there is no limitation to what they can do out there. Lucas’s favorite thing is to stand just shy of the geyser and reach his hand out, almost daring it to touch his fingers. As he does, he will look up at use with a smile. Olivia is a bit more direct. She just tackles the stream like Refrigerator Perry.
Then, suddenly and without warning, Lucas is over it. All of it. Peace. He’s out.
He goes from fun to done in no time flat and we’re suddenly watching him dart for the backdoor of the house. He lunges for the knob and wants nothing more than to go back to the television that he must have forgotten was waiting inside.
There’s no reason for this change of mood. Nothing happened. Nothing’s wrong. I often think that if he had the language to express himself, he would look at me and say, “I’m not hungry. I’m not tired. I’m just f’n done, man.” Because, well, he’s f’n done, man.
This change of attitude can take place two hours in or ten minutes in. There’s no predicting when it will spring up, but although we can sometimes squeeze a few more minutes out of him, we ultimately have to accept that he’s through. Every minute after that will be a steady decline down the slope of enjoyment. Jack and Jill are tumbling down the hill.
At one time, we might not have allowed him to call it a day before we deemed him ready. We had situations where we tried to hold on to the moment long after it passed and it led to a meltdown as he’d thrust his body against the glass doors of the den. His face sliding the transparent barrier between him and the Google Chromecast, we’d plead for him to come back, but he wouldn’t.
It would ruin our memories of that day. It took that hour of fun and turned into nothing more than an awful twenty-minute post-mortem of misery, not just for us but for him. We all ended up in a worse mood than when we started. We only remembered the agony.
Today, we no longer do that. When Lucas is over it, we let him be. Coaxing him to try for some more time is fine, but forcing him to stay is never the right approach. That isn’t how fun works. It doesn’t create more fun, it only ruins the fun that we’ve already had. It makes him not want to join us the next time.
Because of this, we’ve had many wonderful, but abbreviated days. There have been fantastic seven frame games of bowling or happy times watching four innings of a minor league baseball game. We’ve spent half of birthday parties bouncing on the bounce castle and the other half laying down in front of it. We let Lucas dictate his own pace and we never force anything more out of him than he is capable of. It’s how we can ensure that he’s present for those moments as they happen and willing to be a part of them the next time.
We don’t get mad when he can’t give us more time than he is able to. We allow him to be there for the time that he can and cherish the time we spent together. In most cases, his happy mood continues on for the rest of the day and, although we’re no longer at the amusement park, we spend family time in the living room. His smiles goes on for miles.
Of course, it’s not always like this. Lucas doesn’t call off every event early. We have sat in astonishment as he’s endured concerts, shows, and celebrations with no problem. We always leave with a sense of pride, but we go into these excursions knowing that an early end to a wonderful day is better than a late end to a miserable one. If we need to leave before it’s over to preserve the memory, we’re willing to do so.
We want him to be a part of our happiest moments whether they happen today or tomorrow. That’s why they need to be his happy moments too. If we force them, they no longer become happy for him…or for us. It took us all a while to learn that, but eventually we did. I’d rather have a hundred pictures from a twenty minute outing of family fun than a terrible headache from a two hour battle to make it last longer.