June 1, 2012
Field of Dreams
It’s an absolutely gourgeous morning, perfect for celebrating Justin and his classmates’ feats of strength at his school’s annual Field Day, and I am thrilled to be there. In a matter of minutes my eldest son will come outside in a school-wide parade to kick off the event, one in which hopefully Justin will show as much enthusiasm to see us as he did last year, when this was all new to him. It turns out I needn’t have worried, because his slight smile of recognition is in evidence when he makes the turn near our table, and it is clear he knows what’s about to transpire. My mom and I wave gleefully at our boy as he proceeds back to his classroom to await the festivities, with one slight look backwards to make sure we’re still there.
I can assure you, we’re not going anywhere.
One of the things about having a child with moderate to severe autism is that sometimes there aren’t a great deal of ceremonies in which to celebrate their accomplishments, which is why this day means so much to me. Down the road of course there will be at least one graduation, and we’re considering enrolling him in equestrian Special Olympics in the future, but right now, Field Day is it.
The singularity of this recognition is not from lack of trying, but more from lack of interest on Justin’s part. We’ve attempted different types of sports through the Challenger program in our town, a league created to accommodate special needs children, but my son has remained immune to the charms of athletics. While I always want him to try new things, I also want him to enjoy participating in the events themselves.
I happen to think his childhood should be about him. I’m old school that way.
So today I’ll capture moments on film that hopefully depict an enthusiastic boy, one happy to belt a ball off a stand set strategically in front of him so that he’s ultimately successful. I will catch my son surprisingly amused by wearing Hawaiian garb as he conducts a three-legged race, and warm to the fact that he constantly looks behind him to make certain his mom’s and grandma’s eyes are only for him. For posterity, I’ll record the instant where my child kicks a ball with gusto into a goal, then looks incredibly bored by the undertaking.
He’s my boy after all. Sports are simply not his thing.
All in all, the day should have proceeded without incident, culminating in a barbecue in which I would predict correctly that my son would only enjoy consuming the carbs. The glitch came when there was a change in routine. It was a major one, an alteration which deviated greatly from last year’s event, when rain became an unwelcome guest who forced the staff to relocate the grilled goods into the confines of the school, and required parents to return after lunch to collect their kids.
This year we had sunshine falling benevolently around us as we consumed our hot dogs and hamburgers, and I wondered how this was all going to end. Due to the great weather this year’s Field Day would culminate in an award’s ceremony, one in which (in theory) Justin would be asked to wait on line with his classmates, ascend a stage, and happily receive his certificate of participation.
After nine years, with waiting still not being his forte, I admit I had my doubts.
True to form, as the last crumbs of white bread made their descent into my son’s stomach he rose, tried to locate a garbage receptacle (he cleans up beautifully after himself without prompting, one of the many things I love about him), and after failing in that endeavor simply plopped his plate back on the table. He then took my camera from me, placed it back in its case, grabbed my hand, and made off for the building adjacent to the one which houses his classroom.
Amidst queries by his aide and my mother of “Does he need to use the bathroom?” and “Is he taking you for a walk?” I inwardly laugh, because I know exactly what this kid is doing, and once again I am amazed at his retentive abilities. Despite having only done this once before it’s clear my son remembers the rules he and mommy must follow to leave the premises, and I comprehend completely why he is heading toward the building that houses the paper I must sign so that we can go home.
And now, the fun begins.
I share this information with the concerned adults around me, and tell Justin to sit down. I explain to him that he has to wait, and knowing it will be at least twenty minutes before his class convenes to accept their congratulations, I remind myself this will not be a relaxing interlude. I am correct in my assumption. And while his grandma gets him to dance for a bit, and his wonderful aide convinces him to sit on her lap for some time, it’s me he ends up with at that picnic bench.
I admit, ten minutes into my son reluctantly perched on my lap, some bruised shins (mine), and wondering if my spine will be permanently fused to that picnic table, I want to give in and call it a day. After all, he participated fully in each feat of strength. He was happy, and engaged in the day. He’s eaten chips and en entire hamburger bun. Up to this point for him, it’s been a win-win.
I look over at my mom after a particularly painful slam from his agitated rocking, and she says, “let him stay”. And while part of me would be happy to oblige with him on someone else’s lap, that annoying “mommy voice” that resides within many special needs parents kicks in, and tells me not to give in. The truth is, he’s getting bigger every day (thank to his dad, not me), and it’s harder to say “no” and stick to it. It would be so much easier to gather my crap and let him lead me to that rushed signature, the one that right now would signify both escape, and failure.
I look again at my mom’s face, and I know right then I’m not giving in to him.
Fifteen minutes and some soon-to-be-colorful spots on my legs later, it’s finally Justin’s turn. His aide leads him to line up in formation before the steps, and I watch as he reluctantly complies. Finally his name is called and he climbs the wooden slats to his reward, one which he regards quizzically, as I knew he would. He accepts my embrace and congratulations, then immediately leads me in the direction of freedom, and release.
I’ve already worked out a plan with his aide, so I blow a hurried kiss to my mom and ascend a new set of stairs. I smile to myself, because this is one more battle won, and it may not seem like a major accomplishment, but it is. There will be many more times he’ll be forced to remain in an environment he won’t find even the least be reinforcing. Some of these outings will occur with me and his teachers. Many more will happen in the decades when he will no longer be under my care, when he needs to understand the rhythm of need and compliance, the give and take of his desires versus the rules of those who will care for him. I needed to do this for him, to show him (for what feels like the millionth time) that once again, “no means no.”
I needed to do this for me.
And as we make our way into the parking lot, he with the ghost of a smile playing at his features and his hand tucked firmly in mine, I know with this particular event, both of us won.