When we first pull up, I always feel a bit of a tinge in the pit of my stomach. My son is dressed like a little man and it’s pretty adorable. His husky ten-year-old frame, stuffed into dressed slacks might not say much, since he’s non-verbal, but his face can tell me a story. I examine it to see if he’s agitated, happy, or ready to dart away. It tells me everything I might need to know about whether this party could be “too much” for him.
Lucas has autism. It’s part of who he is. He struggles with impulse control, motor skills, and many interactions. Even when he’s happy, his jumping, screeching, and clapping can be jarring to some. It makes for some gut-wrenching moments before we enter a social setting.
There have been some disasters. I’m sure it’s easy to picture and you’ve probably witnessed some yourself if you have a boy like mine or know someone who does. I’m not sure how others view it, but I know how I do.
It breaks my heart for him. When he was younger, there were times when he greatly battled his desire to grab food wherever he found it. We’d go to Thanksgiving and the hosts would have a plate of dip on an end table for chips. My son would lunge for it, with me holding his arm back to stop him. It would work for a brief period but, as soon as I became too comfortable and diverted by gaze, he’d be airborne.
As he dove through the air, I’d watch in horror when he crashed into the tray, knocking things to the ground and stuffing his hand into the bowl. He’d shove potato chips into his mouth and collapse on the floor, surrounded by debris, and crying.
It killed me. Even now, writing it out and remembering it, it kills me.
Others there might not see it that way. I’m sure some people were annoyed and others felt pity. They saw the worst side of a boy in public who saved some of his most wonderful moments for us in private at home. I felt he was misrepresented. I worried he was misunderstood. But most of all, I knew he was upset and didn’t want to feel the way he was feeling at that moment. All I wanted to do was scoop him up, hug him tight, and disappear into the air.
As the years have gone by, Lucas is better with food. He doesn’t lunge or fight for it, but he asks constantly. If there are bowls of chips, he will request over and over for more until he’s eaten more than he should. If stopped, he will become upset. It can be difficult.
There are events he can’t sit through without making noise or social settings that we, as grown ups, know any kid would be bored of. In Lucas’s case, his boredom can’t be washed away. I can’t bribe him with promises of candy. I can’t give him a speech about “being a big boy”. I can’t do much of anything except manage his agitation in the moment or perhaps remove him from the room altogether, forcing me to miss some major moments from outside in the hallway.
It sounds terrible, right? One of the two people I want to be around the most at happy occasions seemingly can’t “handle” happy occasions. Babysitting notwithstanding, why don’t we just leave him home?
We don’t because of days like the block party he went to last year. Sure, he ate more than his share, but he was more social and excited than I have ever seen. He tapped on the piano. He played with a dog. He walked up and down the street. It was a memory that I nearly missed because I tried to drive away after dropping off my daughter. It was the host who said, “Why don’t you let him try?”
So, I did. He loved it.
Being a special needs parent requires patience. That’s a given. Everyone talks about it. However, it also requires something else – leaps of faith.
As Lucas’s dad, I need to ignore our failures from last year and try again this year. A party he hated in 2021 might be one that he loves in 2022. He’s a kid and kids evolve. Issues change and skills emerge. When it comes to parties and social settings, the only way to know is to test it. The key to everything is repetition.
Will he always struggle with social events? A part of me thinks, “Yeah. Probably.” He might never be the party animal host with the most. There may never be lampshades on his head or neckties as headbands as he leads a conga line. I know that. I’m OK with that.
But like any other skills he learns, there may come a time when he’s ready to follow some social norms that are required at these events. He might be able to sit and present himself in the best possible light to those around him. Hell, he might even like it and enjoy being out. That could happen. He’s made more unexpected transitions than that. Surprise and pride are no strangers to me as it relates to my boy.
There’s only one way to find out and that’s to try whenever we can. Things might be bad and we might have to leave early, but they might not be and we might stay. If you, the host, are willing to let us take that risk, we’re ready to take it. Whatever happens, I know he will try his best. He always does.