My Non-Verbal Son Is Allowed To Have Bad Days Too

Do you know who complains a lot? Everybody. Everybody complains a lot.

Our days are spent griping about what we are doing now, have to do later, or did earlier. We look forward to the fun, when it’s promised, and lament the boring when it’s happening. When it comes to verbal communication, one of the best perks it offers is being able to whine to those around us.

My son doesn’t have that luxury. As a non-verbal boy with autism, Lucas doesn’t have the language to share his annoyance in that way. Sure, there are little stick figures with angry and happy faces on his communication device. Sure, he can press them and let us know how he feels. But he doesn’t…at least not yet.

It could be that he hasn’t learned to understand what those buttons mean, but even if he did, it seems like a lot of work. For me, in that moment of anger, I couldn’t imagine scrolling through screens and menus just to say, “I. Am. Angry.

In my angriest moments, I’m just trying to avoid slamming my head into a wall. If I had to navigate an iPad, I’d probably smash it.

And maybe that’s why he has a big foam bouncy case on that thing.

son not sleep

Frustration is universal and I’m sure most of us can relate to these emotions. We all have days we want to see end early and activities that we’d rather avoid. My son is a person and he feels the same way.

Yet, if he demonstrates some sort of unhappiness at his current plans for the day, how does the world respond?

Did he get up early?

Looks like someone is sleepy.

He’s demonstrating some behavior issues.

Hmmm. Possible. However, the answer could be, “Or he just doesn’t want to be at your party. I don’t either. We were promised cake. Stop talking and start serving.”

Not every grumpy day is due to some mystery ailment. It’s perhaps the most overlooked aspect of raising a special needs child. A meltdown isn’t always sensory. A tantrum isn’t always a result of physical discomfort. Sometimes, my kid just ain’t feeling it. Then, on top of that, his inability to communicate those feelings or even simply understand them must be incredibly frustrating.

If I’m being honest, I’d throw myself on the floor at that point too.

suddenly exhausted

While pointing this out might seem like a no-brainer when written out, it’s dealing with it in practice that makes it difficult. I’ve had tough times with my little guy that I felt guilty about after the fact. The truth, though, is that parents aren’t perfect and we’re not always equipped to handle things the way we know is best.

I’d love to be able to sit on the floor next to him and let him and get the misery out of his system before standing up, dusting off, and continuing on our way. But when your hands are full of groceries, you have another kid late for some sort of lesson, and you’re going on little sleep yourself, it isn’t always an option. Sometimes, you have to tell him to cut the nonsense and Weekend-At-Bernie’s your way out of the mall with this giant mound of sound wailing away next to you.

We get to the car. He calms down. Then the inevitable post-meltdown car-ride-home one-sided conversation takes place.

You’re killing me, buddy. You can’t do that anymore. People aren’t going to understand that behavior when you’re older. They barely understand now. You need to be a big boy. You hear me. Big boy, right? Are you listening?

…and he’s asleep.

All that said, one thing is clear. The best thing about having a non-verbal eleven-year-old is that I’ve had like ten years to get used to the public moments that mortify a newbie. People stare? Let ‘em. People say something? Punch ‘em.

OK, maybe not punch, but that rarely happens. In my experience, the rudest comments come when most people think you don’t have a situation under control. You have to show your kid who the parent is and the people around you too.

That said, to hell with the people around you.

That’s the thing that has slowly seeped into my mindset since Lucas was small. Those times are tough and they’re the toughest for him. The rest of the world factors in, but there are parameters. I will lead him outside if we’re somewhere that demands quiet, like a movie or library. A kid’s play gym or a park? Cry it out, buddy. Hopefully, it will make you feel better.


As a father to a neurotypical daughter, I can honestly say it’s not the same when dealing with her former moody times. For a dad who constantly wants to illustrate how similar special needs parenting can be to those without special needs, this is one that’s different. When my daughter was grumpy, not only could she express it, but she could also be bribed with a post-dentist trip to Panera.

Lucas – not so much. Long-term promises and future plans don’t register the same. We’ve only barely passed the point of getting him to accept that food takes time to cook. “Be good and we’ll have ice cream later tonight” means nothing. All of the things we drag him to are through his good graces. He does them as a favor without any expectations of being rewarded later on. It’s pretty amazing when you think about it. It makes the occasional meltdowns seem like a small hiccup in the world of a wonderfully accommodating kid.

For that, I’m proud of him and it’s why I try to give him the benefit of the doubt in those angry times. We all have off days. He can have them too. Life can be frustrating. At least I get to complain about it.

And we’ll have ice cream later whether he understands it or not. He’s earned it.



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