October 21, 2014
The Land of Make-Believe
My eldest son breezed through the trick-or-treating partitions at Great Adventure, slowing down only to snap up a bag of candy he will forego and his mother will sample later. We’ve been participants in this activity for several years now, and in general my son has just tolerated the event, rushing past the Looney Tunes characters as if they were so yesterday, whipping by hands outstretched for high-fives or arms elongated for hugs.
Today however he slows down slightly at Foghorn Leghorn, waits patiently for a family to acquire their photo op, and approaches the costumed employee. He stops, stares into his “eyes,” takes a tentative hand and strokes Foghorn’s bill, never breaking eye contact with his newfound friend.
And as I stand and witness his newfound interest, I just can’t help but wonder what’s going through his head.
When Justin was diagnosed almost a decade ago with autism, the pronouncements for his life trajectory were very dour, often completely devoid of hope. Back when he first earned the autistic label I spent hours trolling the internet to acquire any information that might help alleviate the symptoms that seemed to cause him so much distress, and in my research I came upon many of these sites and blogs.
I found them so depressing I soon avoided them altogether, instead devoting my time to ABA manuals and some memoirs which helped shape my perspective on my son’s future, books which enabled me to entertain the possibility that we could indeed be a happy family even with autism in our midst.
No matter where I turned however much of the literature I read harped upon the autistic person’s lack of imagination, their avoidance of any type of pretend play. I can actually remember questioning whether or not we should take Justin to see Santa, balancing the sensory onslaught that so plagued my son when he was younger against the opportunity to visit with this childhood icon.
The childhood icon always won, and most of the time my son seemed to enjoy the event. As Jeff and I would snap away I always spent a few seconds wondering what he thought of sitting on a big bearded man’s lap- did he connect mall Santa with Christmas and toys, or was this just one more crazy thing his mother insisted he try to see if he liked it.
Trust me, back in the day when I was desperate for any activity with which to entice my boy, there were plenty of those events too.
Justin’s much older now than that perpetually cranky toddler, far more apt to accept and even embrace his mother’s outings, some of which I often wonder if he tolerates simply because he loves me. I cut my musings short and watch as my son lays both hands on his new friend’s face, gently angling it down to his eye level, then regard his giant grin. In that moment, I wish I could ask him what he feels. I want to ask him if he understands this is just make-believe, that there’s probably a hungry teenager in that costume.
I want to know if he’s truly having fun.
Soon the eye-gazing concludes, and the offer of a hug is rebuffed by Justin, as is his right. My son affords me the merest flicker of eye contact, then brushes by me in a fast-paced attempt at egress. The truth is, I probably will never get to have a conversation with him where I can ascertain his understanding of the imaginary, of the land of make-believe. He may not think that way, or he may, and I might never know it.
But as I catch up to him at barrier’s end he stops and pulls me into a brief embrace, squeezed my elbows as he is wont to do, and gives me his luminous smile. And in that moment it is irrelevant if he understands the nuances of the fabled, the contrived. At the end of the day only one thing matters- that he’s happy with the life he’s been given.
And at this moment, as he grabs my hand to propel me once again onto his path, I can gratefully say he is.
Follow me on Facebook at Autism Mommy-Therapist