My daughter is a social animal. As a brand-new teenager, her days are spent making plans and carrying them out. She’s always the most popular person in the house.
It’s been one of those busy weeks for her. She had her gaggle of friends over two days in a row while I hid out in my bedroom like the victim of a zombie attack. They cackled and ran about, ordering food and listening to Spotify. Seeing her happy makes me happy, so it was all worth it. Plus they’re all good kids. It makes it easier, as a parent, when your child’s social circle isn’t full of dipsticks.
When it comes to my son, though, things are different. Lucas is non-verbal with autism and more than content to spend his days and nights plugged into a screen. His favorite thing is Youtube Kids and his favorite shows are the same four, over and over, which he starts and stops, over and over, while clapping, over and over. To paraphrase the famous song, he spends most his life living in a stimming paradise.
Taking the iPad or laptop from his cold hands feels like an act of cruelty. If he had his way, he would stay on it during all his waking hours and force his eyes open in his sleeping times to go on it some more. He lives for those screens. That’s his jam.
I can relate to that. Although I’m starting to get more and more into going out, I can also throw my support behind a day at home. Lock the little guy into his iPad and lock me into the Xbox and we can coexist until the cows come home. Add a window shade to keep the basement perpetually at dusk and we’re perfect. Go out? Why? For who? For you? For what? Forget about it. Bring me an electric blanket and ice cream. I’m good.
Seeing his sister embark on a world of excitement, though, tugged on my guilt strings a bit. By the time Saturday rolled around, I made the decision to put his screen away temporarily and drag him off to the community pool. My goal was to submerge this kid in chlorine whether he liked it or not.
The truth is he does both. He likes it and he does not. He’s happy as a fresh-water clam when he’s there, but he’s not during the lead-up when he’s forced to take that death march to the clubhouse. With under-the-breath whines and rubbing of his eyes, he puts on an epic performance. “Oh no,” his actions seem to say, “I’m too tired to move any further.” Right. Ever onward and upward, Gilligan. The deep blue awaits.
Of course, when we made it to the pool, he loved it. It was our best swim time outing yet. With his big sis back home in bed, it was just him and me splashing around and, for the first time ever, he was treading water on his own. It even allowed me a brief few seconds to jump out, grab the camera, and snap a shot. He was killing it, as they say.
Once we were done, we went home and showered. Just as we settled in after an eventful morning, the text came in. My daughter had been invited to the block party of a family friend. Another day, another outing. A Long Island socialite, this kid. She’s a regular Baldwin.
I figured Lucas and I would drop her off and head back home so he could get some much-needed iPad time in, although we were invited to stay, both by the host and by my daughter. She always wants her brother around and this was no exception. Still, I knew he’d be happy to be back in the basement on his device. I probably would be too. For so long, the two of us had been homebodies that my initial reaction is always to say, “Nah. Thanks though.”
But I knew that would be the wrong move. He might be happy at home, but he also might be happy there. It was a gamble that, for my little fella, I was willing to take.
That’s the issue with Lucas and finding fun for his world. These days out could go either way. He might love it or he might hate it. You never know until you are there and, as any parent can attest to, I’m usually pretty tired. He wakes up at 5AM every day and getting him going takes a great deal of effort. The thought of getting his dressed, packing a backpack of special needs supplies, and driving him into the sunlight for an event that might be a total bust is enough to make you want to crawl up under the covers. If he hates it when we arrive and, though his ensuing meltdown, causes me to hate it, then what was the point? We could have been home watching reruns of The Twilight Zone and eating Rolos. This is nonsense.
Luckily, this weekend was different. This weekend, I made him go. This weekend, he had a ball. This weekend was a success.
Lucas brought his iPad along, but managed to get all the fun in too. He stuffed his face with hotdogs, hamburgers, potato chips, and another kid’s half-eaten discarded cupcake (gross). He went on the swings, played the piano, pet the dog, and pushed on until he was ready to pass out. It was an unmitigated success.
It was an important day for my little guy. Years ago, an event like this would have been unheard of. He would have had tantrums and laid down on the couch. I would have spent the entire time caring for him while other party-goers thought I was just being anti-social. His sister would have wanted him to join in on fun that he wanted no part of. No one would have understood why we were off in the corner and our appearance was for show only.
But that was then, this is now and now is different. It’s different because, over the past few years, I’ve been bringing him out more and more. Halloween photoshoots, bowling playdates, days at the park – they all add to his familiarity of social events. Just like how cutting his hair more often, despite the screams, lead to his acceptance of haircuts, bringing him out more often, despite the initial meltdowns, lead to his willingness to appreciate the world around him. He might not love everything he does, but he’s more willing to try.
I’m proud of Lucas. He may be non-verbal, but that doesn’t mean he’s non-social. He just needs a nudge to find out what he loves the most. I can most definitely relate. My boy’s growing every day and becoming more and more a part of the community. Thanks to him, I am too.
IF I HAD AN AUTISM MAGIC WAND…
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