Our Little Corner on Autism Street

I finally brought myself to watch the 60 Minutes segment on the new Sesame Street character, Julia.  Julia is an autistic girl. As seems to be par lately, I sat there watching, with tears rolling silently down my face. This is our world. I couldn’t help but wish Julia had been around ten years ago or more. It may have made his life a little easier if kids had had the chance to learn about autism before he spread his own version of awareness in his classrooms. I hope Julia helps kids, and even  adults, understand autism – that it isn’t something to be afraid of, to turn away from, or to bully.

Here’s the thing – his autism is real. It isn’t ever going away. It is a lifelong diagnosis. There’s no curing it. You don’t take antibiotics for ten days and recover from autism. It is him, it’s part of him.

What does our little corner on autism street look like? Well, take this morning for instance (which mornings aren’t his favorite anyways). Big Man accidentally made too much noise while getting ready for school in their shared bathroom, which woke Little Man up twenty minutes before his usual wakeup time. Anyone can be cranky in the morning, but for us it meant Little Man yelling at pretty much everyone, slamming doors, stomping around upstairs, and just generally letting everyone know he was not happy. In a word, he threw a tantrum. This is not the tantrum you think of with a spoiled or over-tired three year old. It’s something he can’t control. His emotions overwhelm him, and this is his reaction as he can’t process it out, or put words to his feelings. This happens any time something unexpected happens, there’s a change in his routine, we run out of his favorite food, or the battery runs out on his iPad when we’re at a game/event/dinner out. He’s improved ten thousand percent in the last few years. His tantrums are fewer and further between, but they are still part of life.

Meltdowns are also part of life, although, again, there are fewer, and his recovery is much quicker than when he was first diagnosed. Meltdowns usually happen when he gets hurt, or there’s a sudden and unexpected loud noise. Lord help us if a siren goes off he’s not expecting. It’s even in his IEP he have advanced notice, if at all possible, of fire/lockdown drills at school because he will lose it if that alarm goes off and he isn’t expecting it. When we take him to movies, he will use the excuse of needing to go to the bathroom when the sounds get to be too much, or there’s too much action. He’s been known to leave the theater five times during a 2 hour movie, although lately we’ve been able to get that down to two or three trips out. The odd thing about this is, if he chooses to listen to something, he has it turned up SO loud!

He still travels with his favorite stuffed animals. He will be thirteen in a few days. Yeah, that. You should see him watch them go through the security scanner in airports – his face anxiously watching from the other end to make sure they come out safely and don’t get stuck in the machine. We tend to pre-board airplanes because standing in line, and having to get into his seat quickly when there’s a line of people behind us, makes him very anxious and overwhelmed. And  you can bet I  make sure to have all his favorite snacks packed in his airplane bag.

Speaking of food – when  your kid is autistic, you can almost bet his food choices are going to be minimal, and you’d better make sure you don’t run out of more than one of those minimal choices at any given time. I have been known to, in a panic, rush to the grocery store before going to after-school pickup just so I have what I know he will eat. Our restaurant choices tend to be based around whether they have pasta, chicken strips, or burgers on the menu.

He has a weighted blanket, and a weighted hoodie my mom made for him. What a godsend! That blanket has really helped not only his sleep, but when he’s really in full meltdown mode, he gets under it and calms pretty quickly. I can’t even hold the blanket – it makes me claustrophobic, but it’s a comfort for him to be under it.

He does have his obsessions – currently YouTube videos of gamers playing his favorite games, Plants vs Zombies, paper crafting his favorite characters from his favorite video games, coding, and video game music.

He seems much younger than his siblings did at this same age. He seems much younger than many of his peers.While chronologically thirteen, he is emotionally and socially about the level of a 7 or 8 year old. He’s intellectually the equivalent of a high school senior, if not more. It’s an interesting, frustrating combination, particularly when he can’t articulate his thoughts and feelings.

He has very little tolerance of anyone talking down to how old they think he is. Quickest way to get him to be as rude as possible is to be condescending to him. He will light you up, or he will refuse to speak to you but will let you know with his glare exactly what he thinks.

We don’t go anywhere without some kind of screen and headphones for him. It’s that simple. Yes, we frequently get those judgemental looks in restaurants, etc when he pulls out his iPad or phone, puts his headphones on, and completely disengages. Trust me – you don’t want to deal with the alternative.

He does flap his arms a bit, get over-excited, sit in odd and contorted positions.  He has his tics, for sure. We’re used to them, and I don’t think about them much, unless we’re out or around someone new and I notice the glances and staring.

He does perseverate. He doesn’t like to try new things. He doesn’t want to do anything he thinks he can’t do successfully. He pushes back on things he thinks he can’t do. His anxiety causes sleep issues, especially when he’s out of routine.

So that’s our little corner on autism street. That’s not his entire story though. He’s utterly brilliant, witty, loves puns, incredibly creative. He’s amazing, he’s mine, he’s autistic.

We look a little different

I took Little Man with me to church this morning. It’s been awhile since he’s been with me. Quite honestly, it’s often easier to leave him at home. I can worship and listen without having to worry about him, or handle an outburst or meltdown. But today, he chose to go with me rather than the gym with dad.

I’ll admit – we just look a little different than most families. First off – I don’t battle his clothing choices much. He walked in this morning in his too-short sweatpants, gaming t-shirt, and flip flops. This is his typical uniform every day. He loves his sweatpants, and he would wear sweatpants every single day if allowed. Add to the look his ever-present headphones, and, due to his lip-licking tic, the chapped red line of skin under his lower lip. He also tries to get away with showering without actually using any soap, and has a tendency to jam his hands into his hair, resulting in his thick, not-entirely-clean  hair usually standing on end. It’s definitely his own look.

He doesn’t appear to pay any attention to what’s going on in the service. He has his headphones on, and watches YouTube videos on my iPad. It keeps him calm most of the time. He does, however, spread the autism awareness by flopping around in his seat, frequently squatting on the edge of his chair, back to the pulpit, or raises his feet in the air. Half the time, I’m terrified he’s going to yell out smack in the middle of the sermon.  He watches the clock at the back of the sanctuary, knowing when service typically ends. Often, he gives a heavy sigh when less time has passed than he thinks.

It doesn’t end at church. When we go out to dinner, when I take him to the high school football games, he has his “stuff”…….headphones, iPad, phone, second set of headphones, and always the snacks.  At the football games, he takes up the space of about three people, his things on either side of him. When there’s cheering, he slaps his hands over his already-headphoned ears.  I’m aware we just don’t look normal.

Most of the time, I don’t think about it. We are who we are. He’s autistic. There’s no changing that fact. And I refuse, frequently, to excuse or explain. I do what I must to help my child be comfortable in a world that’s difficult for him.  Yes, we do look a little different, but like every other family, we’re just doing our best for our babies.