I took Richie shoe shopping yesterday. This is always a guilt-laden activity for me, because it’s always precipitated by me suddenly remembering, weeks or months too late, that he has feet. And that they grow. And that shoes don’t.
(Confession: I can get so caught up in the “keeping my children alive” thing that I forget they have needs beyond food, shelter, and Minecraft.)
Yesterday Richie walked through the kitchen, and it occurred to me that it had been a long time since he’d had new sneakers. I bent over to feel the front of his shoe, to feel how much “room to grow” he still had. But I never even touched his shoe, because as soon as I looked, I could see that the front of his shoes were deformed. As in, the child had been wearing too-small sneakers for so long that his big toes had built some nice little condos out the front. I straightened up and muttered the four words most appropriate for moments like this: Mother of the Year.
Part of Richie’s Autism is that he can’t feel his own body the way the rest of us do. He rarely tells us that he is hungry or thirsty; it’s like he just doesn’t recognize what these feel like. He eats regular meals – big ones – but I can only remember one time in his almost 12 years when he came to me and asked for food. Feeling cold is difficult for him, too; the school he used to attend let him go outside to recess once in 30-degree, wet weather without his coat. I happened to be in the classroom when he came inside, and although he was tremendously pale with a red nose and ears and could barely move his fingers, it never occurred to him that he was extremely cold.
Looking back at his infancy, I realize that the earliest indication of Richie’s lack of body awareness happened before he was even a year old. His twin sister, Jillian, was extremely fussy and was touching her right ear repeatedly. We made a Saturday morning emergency appointment with our pediatrician and walked in with both babies in their car seats. The doctor examined Jillian and determined that she did not have an ear infection. Seeing Richie sitting peacefully in his car seat, the doctor decided to check his ears as well (I have no idea why). Turned out it was the quiet baby giving no indication of pain who had a raging ear infection.
You might think that the mother of a child like this would be able to keep such information in the front of her mind. Not me. Mother of the Year.
Off to the shoe store we went. A salesgirl measured Richie’s feet and brought us a few pairs of sneakers in his size. As she sat down to open the boxes, she casually mentioned that now that his feet were a size 4, he no longer had the option of shoes with Velcro closures.
She might as well have told us that he’d have to wear his underpants on his head. He sucked in his breath and put his hands over his ears. I stayed outwardly calm but was just as panicked on the inside.
My dear, one-in-a-million son, the one who charms me daily and touches my soul with the things he says, takes FOREVER to get his shoes on. His shoes with the quick Velcro closures!
Fine motor tasks are difficult for him. I’ve heard Autism advocates say that to empathize, I should try putting my shoes on while wearing oven mitts. And when I imagine doing that, it makes me want to slow down and be the most patient mother in the universe each time we leave the house. However…I am me, Type A and impatient, and we need to be at baseball practice in 20 minutes!
Richie and I both took a deep breath and resigned ourselves to lace-up sneakers. He tried on two pairs (tied by the sales girl), running around the store in each one. He is really into The Flash right now, so each time he stopped, he would turn, flatten his hands & fingers, bend his elbows to 90-degree angles, cock one arm behind him, and then flash forward across the store. Except that his running is not exceptionally graceful. Still, cutest Flash ever.
He chose the black sneakers, and the salesgirl took them to the counter to ring us up. I looked at Richie’s face and saw immediately that he was still thinking about the whole “no Velcro” crisis.
“Richie,” I asked, “are you worried about learning to tie your shoes?”
“Yes….it’s going to take me a long time.” He looked thoughtful for a minute, and I could see the wheels turning in his head. I realize now that he was imagining an ideal world where they make Velcro-closure shoes in every size, so no man, woman, or child needs to feel stress. Where even his Mom could wear the Velcro shoes he loves so much.
“I know you can do it, Richie,” I said. “You’ll practice and you’ll learn to tie your shoes. It’s part of growing up. You’re getting bigger, they don’t make shoes with Velcro in your size, and it’s time to get sneakers with laces.”
He glanced down at my tidily-laced sneakers, then back up at my face. “Is that what happened to you?”
P.S. I later found some “hook and loop” (Velcro) closure shoes in Richie’s size on Zappos.com. But I’m holding off for now. I really do believe he can do this. And it’s time.