Teaching Lessons My Child With Autism Understands

I never wanted to be that grumpy adult. The thought of one day sitting in a big chair and muttering under my breath about nothing while kids tip-toed around me on eggshells made me shudder. No one wants to be that type of dad. Who would want that?

As I’ve gotten older, though, I’ve learned that it’s not about want. It’s about life. There have been plenty of times during plenty of days when I just felt done. I didn’t want to do anything else. No more laundry. No more dishes. No more driving.  No more moving. Daddy is done. Peace out.

That’s usually when my son comes walking over to tap my arm. Lucas doesn’t have words, but he has plenty of ways to non-verbally let you know he wants something. If you’re in the mood for his sweet ways, it’s cute. If you’re not, it’s infuriating.

The ways he gets your attention can be infuriating too. When he was little, he would grab your chin and turn your face to his. That was adorable for a few months until he started to grow. Suddenly we realized that he was learning to physically grab people by the mug and spin them around like the bully in an ‘80s movie. Visions of crying children rang through my head. We nipped that one in the bud.

Today, he’s less aggressive but more intense. It starts with a tap…and then another…and another. They are persistent and continuous. If you don’t respond right away, they get worse and worse.

I know some people are asking why I would ignore him initially. How awful can I be? Ignoring a poor non-verbal boy who desperately needs something? What the hell could be so important?

How about brushing my teeth? Driving my car? Carrying heavy objects? Cooking on the stove? Using the bathroom? Seriously. He’s flung the door open for his “pressing issue.” Lucas waits for no man.

receptive language

If the taps are ignored, he will take your hand and try to lead you. Again, I could be typing, fishing, or using the phone. He doesn’t care. He reaches in, locks his fingers around mine, and starts to walk. The worst part is that before I even get up, I know what it is.

Food. He wants food. Nine times out of ten, he wants food. The one time he doesn’t, he will still accept food as a consultation prize and walk away half-annoyed.

The food he wants is usually something monumental. Lucas rarely asks for a cracker. He wants a pizza, quesadilla, or chicken nuggets. He’s constantly on the hunt for a full meal. The time of day doesn’t matter and the last time he ate doesn’t exist. He wants meals. He wants them always.

So, when I’ve been dragged from the couch, up the stairs, and into the kitchen just so he can use his device to ask me for a pizza, it’s a little annoying. Then when you realize it’s 9:45 in the morning and he ate two waffles at 8:30, it’s insanity.

My first response is usually disbelief. I don’t know how long I need to know this kid before moments like this stop being shocking, but it hasn’t happened yet.

No. No food. You just ate!

This is where my son proves to the world that non-verbal doesn’t mean non-communicative. Upon being denied, he lifts both of his hands to his temples like an old Jewish comedian showing agitation. As he does, he lets out a prolonged sound of pain. It’s as if he just lost the Showcase Showdown on Price Is Right. I stare at him with an expression that should offend him, but it doesn’t. He’s too focused on the missing pizza.

This is the point where I spring into action. Times like this cause me to call on every form of communication I have with Lucas. I want him to understand why he can’t have what he’s asking for. I want him to get it. I need him to get it.

Hey. Hey. Look. Look at me. Luuuuucas….look at me. Hey. Look. You want food?

Pinched fingers to my mouth, pretending to eat.

Right? OK. Pizza, right? You want pizza?

His eyes perk up and he looks at me with a face that says, “Yes, pa-pa. I desire pizza.”

OK, yes, but not yet. Wait. Look. Wait. First, we wait a bit. We just ate breakfast. Thennnnnn…pizza. But not yet. Wait.

My hands are all over the place. “Wait” is an outstretched palm. “Thennnnn” is a rainbow motion with my arm. It’s a whole thing. My goal is to make him understand me. He does. Know how I know?

Because his hands go to his temples and the whine is louder than before. Oy vey. This Jackie Mason kid is killing me.

back to school

Here is where we come to a crossroads. As it stands, I have taught him nothing at this point. All he knows is I am saying no. I am denying him the sustenance that he is obsessed with. I am the bad guy in the story. He feels awful. I do too.

Maybe I am the bad guy here so far. I don’t know how he registers hunger or the pressing desire for stimulation of chewing. I wonder if maybe the pull is so enormous for him that it registers on a level I can’t understand. Maybe just saying no will only ruin his day, make him more ravenous, and teach him he needs to sneak food rather than ask. My stern response could be doing us both a disservice.

So, what I do is go to the pantry and take out a single cookie or palmful of Goldfish crackers. I will walk over to his device and press the button.

Gold-fish Cracker.

Like a switch, he’s no longer in melodramatic agony.

Here. We eat a snack. No big food. Now nothing else until lunch, ok? You press it.

He lifts his hand and presses the same button I did.

Gold-fish Cracker.

He eats them and he goes away happily. That’s it.

This might not be the best course of action every time with him, but I know my kid. Even if he had words, there would be days where I compromise. In some cases, a small cracker wouldn’t be enough for him. Again, though, I know my child. Sometimes he is starving, but sometimes he just needs to reset the little timer that lives in his mouth, Mrs. Torrance.

Lessons are learned and points are made. Rather than standing tall, holding my ground, and being that grumpy adult who screams “no”, before sending my child with autism off alone, I teach him something. Moderation. Less is more. Sometimes you have a meal. Sometimes you have a snack. Food intake isn’t a game of how much you can fit in. That’s something he can process and understand isn’t being done just out of malice

Parenting isn’t how loudly you can say no. Sometimes it’s about teaching, rather than punishing. If he had the language and understanding, might I simply say no? Perhaps. But that’s for another kid. For a boy like mine, it’s the key to raising him to be a better man.




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