My baby is huge. I don’t mean “fat”, although he is rather plump. He’s a few inches shorter than me and we share t-shirts. That’s what I mean by “huge”. To call him a baby is like when they called that brontosaurus in that 80s movie “Baby”.
When I talk about him, though, I don’t justify babying him by telling people his internal age. When a child has special needs or, in Lucas’s case, is non-verbal with autism, parents tend to do that. I’ve had people say to me, about their own children:
Yes. He’s 20, but he’s mentally around five or six, so we hug him and interact as we would with someone younger.
I’ve never done that. Honestly, I don’t know what my son’s mental age would be. It’s hard to put a number on it. He’s not “typically” eleven, despite his birth certificate. He’s not really five or six either. Who he is doesn’t really correspond to a chronology. He’s just sort of, well, Lucas.
He’ll think nothing of coming over and plopping down on my lap or, in times of exhaustion, leaning into me with two fists full of my shirt collar and collapsing as if I can still scoop him up with one arm. He will lay on me if I’m laying down or grab me for a kiss when he’s happy with me about something. We tickle. We laugh. His sister and I chase him around. It’s a whole different vibe than one we can attribute to any neurotypical five- or six-year-old. It’s unique.
I get it, though. I get that sometimes, as he gets older, we have to push him to be more self-sufficient and mature. That’s definitely something I do. There have been more than a few times where he heard a firm, “No, Lucas. Big boy time. Sit up. We need to wait and be patient.”
I’ve peeled him off my sleeve or coaxed him from the floor when he’s having a meltdown. If he tries to grab food from a stranger’s plate, he’s stopped, scolded, and we apologize. There’s never a shoulder shrug and a, “Sorry. He has autism.” People are cool with things like this as long as they know you’re working on it. If they think you aren’t trying to correct behavior, that’s when the rude moments pop up. That’s how I’ve managed to avoid conflict in his eleven years.
If Lucas drops something on the floor, I have him pick it up. When we brush his teeth, I make him hold the brush and do the motions. When his meal is done, he brings over his plate and puts it in the sink. The process is slow, but the goal is in view. I know what will be expected of him one day and I’m teaching him that now.
All that being said, there are also times when I don’t make him “be a big boy.” There are definitely occasions when I give him the affection or “babying” that I know he looks for. I have found myself doing more than a few tasks for him, even though it’s way past the age when he should be doing it.
The stories we read before bed are stories he has had since he was a toddler. Frog and Friends, Penguins Penguins, and The Monster At The End of This Book all still have a place in his room and in our hearts. The way I read those books has also never changed since those toddling years.
I may do funny voices or tickle him at certain spots. He loves every minute of it. He anticipates those moments and knows when to turn the pages. There’s a familiarity with it that he loves. It’s never changed. To be honest, I don’t think it ever will.
There is a very real expectation in my mind that one day, he’ll be a 40-year-old man and his elderly father will still read these books to him. That’s not a doom and gloom scenario either. Acknowledgment of that is the biggest change from a new parent to a child with special needs and one that has been down the road for a while. It’s not just the acceptance, but the appreciation of who your child is and will grow to be.
When my boy was two, if you told me we would still be reading Sesame Street books at eleven, I would have cried. It was one of my biggest fears. To me, that thought felt like a failure. It felt like all the advice people were giving me at the time about how to “get him on track” or “catch up” were things that would definitely work, If only I’d do it. To imagine a world where they didn’t work would be a world where he and I didn’t work hard enough at it.
And that’s nonsense.
We worked hard and pushed forward and, as of today, I can confidently say that he’s living his full potential. There’s been no slacking or giving up. This is who he is and, if we didn’t do those things, he wouldn’t have reached some of his milestones. Today, he’s the perfect version of himself that he can be.
Because of that thinking, I know that if he’s 40 and reading those same books with me, it’s because that’s who he is at 40. It’s not like we missed the boat on his PHD or stopped him from being an opera singer because we read Sesame Street bedtime stories. Doing the things he loves today, despite the age-inappropriate nature of them, doesn’t stop him from being something else tomorrow. It’s allowing him to be who he is. It’s allowing him to reach his full potential.
Kids need love. My kid is no different. He has lots of things to learn and, as his dad, I plan to teach him all of them. As we do, though, there are many tickles and storybooks along the way. I’m more than his teacher. I’m his father. If I spend my whole life chasing who he could possibly be, I’ll miss the chance to celebrate who he is.
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