May 18, 2011

Letting Go

Posted in AMT's Faves, If You Need a Good Cry, Life's Little Moments tagged , , , , , , , , , , at 9:55 am by autismmommytherapist

Even at the tender age of eight, my son Justin has somehow managed to acquire several paramours during his short stint on earth. First, there’s the love of his life who lives around the corner, a girl for whom he would do anything. This dedication includes shoving me out of the room whenever she arrives to play with him (in a painful, bruise-in-the-small-of-the-back-kind-of-way, it’s a proud moment every single time). On a local beachside playground there was a lovely teenaged girl we continually encountered on summer afternoons, a love interest with whom Justin shared his toys, and his kisses. There have been mild flirtations along the way with the few girls in his classes (that 4:1 boys to girls ratio for autism has not been in his favor), including a young blond thing in pre-school for whom he tried to escape his classroom whenever he caught sight of her. Let’s just say, his one-on-one aide was in great shape that year.

And then, there was Kerry.

I’ve written about  Someone Special Needs You (SSNY) several times since I’ve begun this blog, not because I’ve run out of things to talk about (trust me, with autism, you never run out of things to talk about), but because it’s carved out such a unique place within Justin’s lexicon of activities, and within my heart. It’s a group which convenes eight times a year in a church in Colts Neck, NJ (nope, it’s not religious in its origins), and includes neurotypical teen-age peers and children with a range of disabilities as well. Sometimes there’s a theme, such as Christmas/Chanukah or St. Patrick’s Day. On occasion the group’s founder, Vince Scanelli, hosts a full-fledge carnival, or a graveyard Easter Egg hunt. There’s always a craft and an abundance of snacks, which Justin usually consumes as if he’s eating for three. For the most part my eldest only deigns to share his company with the group for about half an hour, but I know on some level, he enjoys his participation.

But the best part for him, hands down, has been his buddies.

Justin has never been a patron of the arts-and-crafts, and I’m pretty certain even the allure of unlimited potato chips wouldn’t convince him to get out of the car at 6:30 at night, at the end of a long week at school. No, the single most motivating factor to inspire Justin to do something other than handle toys that light up and spin, has always been women. This is a trait he seems to have inherited from both sides of his family, with the sponsors being his father and maternal great-grandfather, respectively. My son loves being fawned over (as on occasion, have said father and great-grandfather), and for at least a limited time, will do absolutely anything for a pretty, smart, kind girl who’s been his friend for four consecutive years (that includes painting a damn leprechaun).

And since he was four years old, for most of the time he’s participated in this group, Kerry has played the role of primary reinforcer.

Justin’s fabulous buddy is a senior in high school, and although I’ve had almost half a decade to prepare for her departure (come on girl, what about online learning, it’s the wave of the future), I was still unaware that our April get-together would probably be the last event my son would be able to spend time with her. I thought we had one more gig in May, during which I would have actually remembered to bring my camera and at least presented Kerry with some photos to remember Justin by, but I was informed early in the event that our sojourn to the gymnasium that evening would be our last until September.

Once I saw that Kerry had made it, and that Justin would get to say goodbye to her, I rallied (never let it be said I’m not a rock of a woman). I left the two of them to their own devices, and helped my husband keep Zachary alive, which given the height of some of the equipment and my youngest son’s refusal to fear anything, was no easy task. I admit, I was easily able to put Kerry’s imminent departure out of my mind in an effort to ascertain exactly how many exits Zach could escape from in each bouncy unit (generally, there were no less than three,  Jeff and I were outnumbered).

Eventually, after an hour of gut-queasy bouncing and multiple room changes, the evening concluded. I asked our soon-to-be-former buddy to escort Justin to the car so he, and I, could say a proper farewell to her. Jeff and I successfully strapped two hyper, over-tired young children into our SUV, I counted the twelve bags that comprise our entourage wherever we go, shoved them in the trunk, and asked Kerry to lean in and hug Justin. She did as asked, extending a full-body embrace and a kiss on the head to my boy, then she turned back to me to say goodbye and hug me too.

I opened my arms, got out “thank you for everything”, and totally lost it on the shoulders of an eighteen-year-old girl.

In my defense, just prior to completing that circle of love, Kerry shared with me that she would be studying to be a speech therapist in part because of Justin, and frankly, I’m not certain how I could have contained myself after that declaration. As I’ve mentioned before, I’ve managed lately to relegate most weeping episodes to television and film, the finale of Lost and my husband’s cruel sharing of the end of Toy Story Three coming to mind. I just don’t find crying all that cathartic anymore, what with the raccoon eyes that follow with the accompanying migraine chaser from hell, so I’ve channeled my desire for release into other outlets.

No, not drugs. Reality television and the blog, people, the blog.

I immediately apologized for sobbing all over her pretty Gap t-shirt, and managed to state without a full-fledged gulp accompaniment how much her participation in the program had meant to Justin, and to me. I thanked her for her commitment to him, how she showed up during flu season and finals, in inclement weather and sunny skies. I informed her she would be an inspirational speech therapist, and that I was proud my son had influenced her decision, even if only in some small way.

I shared with her that one of the most difficult things for me to accept about the nature of my son’s disorder was that in the truest sense of the word he doesn’t have friends, is bereft of the companionship that has sustained me through some of the most difficult periods of my life, as well as provided me with some of the most hilarious moments as well. I told her that in her own way she had been Justin’s companion for the better part of four years, and that filling this gaping niche in his life had played an instrumental part in his social growth, while simultaneously filling an aching need for myself as well.

Then I took a deep breath, sniffled one last time, and managed to let her go.

After making her promise to keep in touch I slid behind the wheel of my car, accepted the proffered tissue from my somewhat confused spouse, and carefully began backing out of my microscopic parking spot. Jeff asked me if I was okay, which unleashed a second wave of weeping, as I tried to explain to him what this girl had meant to our son and me, and failed miserably (it’s hard to talk when you’re hiccupping). Eventually I got a grip, engaged my GPS so I could find my way home and not rely on my husband’s incredulous instructions (the fact that we were simply retracing our previous steps means less than nothing to my direction-addled brain), and headed for home.

I glanced back at my boy, strapped carefully into his fortress of a car restraint, rocking out to Stevie Nicks and blissfully unaware that this hug heralded the end of an era. I sent a silent plea to the universe I wouldn’t have to witness him searching for her at SSNY in September, then eased into traffic on the main thoroughfare. I filled my lungs deeply one last time, searching for solace in the comfort of air, and in that moment, finding none.

And this time, I let that be okay.

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April 4, 2011

The Pot of Gold

Posted in Life's Little Moments, My Take on Autism tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , at 9:31 am by autismmommytherapist

“Zachy, we don’t stand up in booths at restaurants” I gently admonish my youngest child, reminding myself that this is literally the first time he’s been in such an establishment in two years, since he’s an adherent to the gluten-free casein-free diet. While there are now a number of pizza places in our area that serve their fare without wheat, rice, barley, and oats (I imagine this is mostly due to Celiac’s disease and a recent diet craze by celebrities, not autism), I have yet to find a locale which can meet both of my son’s restrictions. Tonight however we’re fortunate, because the owner of this particular Perkins’s has no issue with my toting Zach’s dinner along with me from home, so we’re set. Both boys, to my delight, are eating well. And after I’ve cleaned up the multiple Picasso-like smears of ketchup enhancing both the design of the table and the glass-etched partition separating us from the other patrons in the restaurant, we’ll be on our way to celebrate St. Patty’s Day at Someone Special Needs You tonight.

A woman’s work is never done.

On our way over to meet my aunt for dinner prior to the big event my eldest son kvetched mightily, his disdain for his younger brother’s presence readily apparent, but about halfway to Perkin’s he finally settled down. I even caught him regarding Zach a few times with a look on his face that said “Can you BELIEVE she’s taking us here?”, and after I explained a hundred thousand times to Zach what our itinerary was for the evening, he got on board with the plans as well. After we pay for our meal and over-tip the nicest waitress EVER (short of shoving a mop and bucket in my “goody bag”, there’s no way I can ever restore this table to its proper cleanliness, and this woman NEVER complains), the boys run eagerly to the car, almost pulling our arms from our sockets in their enthusiasm. We quickly arrive at the church mere minutes later, and I relegate Zach to my aunt as I try to prevent Justin from bowling over some of the younger participants in the program.

Even though he’ll want to leave in twenty minutes, for Justin this moment is horseback riding AND Great Adventure all rolled into one.

Neither of Justin’s buddies are in attendance tonight, but we are fortunate to acquire a substitute, a poised, chatty freshman who I am certain will one day dominate the world (in a good way). Justin takes to her immediately, and she says due to her schedule she can’t commit to coming here every month, but she’ll try harder. I’m just grateful she’s here tonight, as the allure of SSNY for Justin is not the crafts, but the teen-aged girls. While autism may traditionally inhibit social interaction in its hosts, this is clearly one subset of the population for which Justin will consistently overcome his limitations.

His father is so proud.

My youngest son has also lucked into a buddy for the evening, and there is a point where for five consecutive minutes I get to chat with my aunt as my boys decorate their leprechauns, and construct their own personal pots of gold in which to house them. I’m constantly plying Justin with food so he will make it to the grand finale of the night, a hunt in the graveyard for gold nuggets of treasure to fill the green buckets they’re creating to hold their stash. Once again I’m impressed with how much effort Vince Scanelli and his volunteers have taken to throw this event together on a weeknight no less, and I’m still grateful for the flyer about SSNY that Justin’s pre-school teacher sent our way in his backpack four years ago. Generally at this point on a weeknight I’m just trying to remind myself to make Justin’s lunch for school, and this gentleman has been providing an outlet for children with all disabilities to spend time with neurotypical peers on a monthly basis. From the look of delight and concentration on Zach’s face, I think the McCaffertys have one more activity our boys can do together as a family.

Bonus.

Justin finishes his craft quickly, but manages to fill the remaining time until the treasure hunt with multiple trips to the bathroom, so for once I’m not spending the majority of my evening convincing him to stick around. Halfway into the hour Vince summons us all to the front of the church’s great room, distributes leprechaun hats to those who desire to don them (where does this man find the time), and regales us with the plans for the rest of the evening. It seems those naughty little Irish icons have distributed their wealth throughout the adjoining cemetery out back, and if we move quickly we can acquire them for ourselves before the green gremlins return to claim their cache. I look around me at the participants, ranging widely both in age and in the manifestation of their disabilities, and listen to their collective exhale of joy and anticipation. I watch Zach look up at my aunt in wonder as he rejects his hat, then I turn toward my eldest to see how he has reacted to the news of impending carb heaven.

He stands squarely in the center of the fray, his eyes mere inches from the mecca of  DVD movie heaven, smiling and entranced by the old man from Up. My son is completely unaware of his surroundings, could just as easily be in Disney, or at the DMV. For him, at this moment, none of the rest of us even exists.

Even a few years ago, this realization might have ruined the night for me. I would have been so saddened my son was oblivious to the excitement swirling around him I wouldn’t have been able to enjoy the moments of engagement he did have this evening, the connection forged with a girl I hope will be a new friend. I’m not certain I would have been able to move forward in my mind to the event to come, which will involve my two boys breathlessly foraging for their finds, relentless in their acquisition of gold. I don’t know that I could have pulled myself back from the abyss of what appears to me at times such a solitary state for my boy, one in which I’ve often envisioned he must feel so alone.

Except, perhaps sometimes, like right now, he actually doesn’t.

My goals for my boys have never altered over the years, have not been diminished by autism, have simply been reframed. I want what I’ve always wanted for them- health, hope for a safe and industrious future, and happiness. The longer I remain on the “autism tour”, the more I feel these elaborate goals are potentially feasible, will perhaps be attainable while I am still young and facile enough in mind to recognize we’ve achieved them.

And that day, in all its glory, will truly be the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow.