Richie Has a Way with Words, #201

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Yesterday we boarded a plane to fly home.  Richie was next to the window, Jillian had the middle seat, and I was on the aisle.  As we were settling in & buckling up, I heard him breathing strangely. The noises he was making were so subtle that no one around us could have possibly realized anything was wrong, but I could tell he was distressed.

“Richie,” I asked, “are you okay?”

He paused for a beat and then said very, very calmly and evenly, “Yes.  I just go crazy sometimes.”

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Stimming at the Beach

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There are few sights more joyous, few things more all-encompassingly buoyant, than watching my son Richie at the beach.  This child, who works so hard everyday to “act normal” so he can fit in with his classmates, lets himself relax – and we let him relax – and the result is a display of wonder and elation like no other.

One of the things Autistic people like Richie battle daily is sensory overstimulation. When we eat out, I hear the shrieks of the baby at the next table as annoying; to Richie they are frighteningly shrill.  Fluorescent lights are, to the neurotypical (non-Autistic) person, well…lights.  But for Richie and others like him, the same lights flicker, distract, and annoy incessantly.  The list goes on and on, and I won’t pretend to know them all.

For many Autistic people, one way to cope with these overwhelming feelings and sensations is to engage in self-stimulatory behavior, or stimming.  For my Richie, this includes flapping his hands, spinning his body, contracting his muscles, and doing what our family calls “chattering:” releasing a verbal burst of words & sounds. In our everyday life, we discourage these behaviors.  If Richie wants to chatter or flap or spin, has to wait until he is at home in his room.  We have this rule because we believe it is in Richie’s best interest, both now and as an adult.  He has a lot to offer the world, but some people won’t be able to see past the flapping.  These behaviors also make him vulnerable to being mocked or bullied by classmates.  So the rule exists.  Some behaviors (like nose picking and others I’d rather not name) just belong in private.

And my hat is off to him; Richie works hard every day to keep these behaviors under control.  So if he comes home after a day of “holding it together” at school and needs to go in his room to flap and spin to decompress, more power to him.

There is something about the beach that brings out his stimming behaviors in spades.  And the difference is striking: whereas at home, the stimming seems to be a coping mechanism, at the beach, it seems to be a joy-filled celebration of all the stimulation that in other circumstances would be difficult to process: the pull of the waves, the push of the wind, the suck of the sand, the chill of the water.  He takes it all in, and his face is luminous.  His eyes twinkle.  His smile grows to bursting.  If Autism makes life harder for Richie 99% of the time, then this is the 1% to treasure.

So the rule is suspended.  Here under the big blue sky, we smile at each other and enjoy Richie enjoying himself.  He flaps, he chatters, he jumps, he paces.  On and on for hours.  And it is beautiful.

Adult Supervision Required

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We’re in Florida this week for Spring Break.  We spent yesterday on the beach, so today we’re setting up camp by the pool.  My kids love hotel pools, mostly because they are so often paired with the holy grail of relaxation for the elementary-school set: a hot tub.

My kids have both had a passion for hot tubs since an early age.  A few years ago, when my parents moved to a retirement community, Richie thought the most impressive thing about the whole place (other than the fact that there’s an elevator and a restaurant where you can get French fries any time you want) was the huge hot tub that sits right beside the indoor pool.

Twice a week, the pool hosts a family swim, and if our schedule allows AND Gram’s beyond-hectic-social-calendar-and-doctor-appointment-schedule does too, we go.  But much to Richie’s horror, the first time we walked in, he read the rules posted on the wall and learned that children under the age of 12 are not allowed in the hot tub.

Now you might ask, “What 8-year-old boy walks into a pool and reads the rules first thing?”  Only my Richie (and lots of other Autistic kids who find comfort and safety in rules and routines).  His love of rules is both endearing and maddening, depending on the day.

We hadn’t been to a family swim in over a year when one day, out of the blue, Richie said to me, “Four more months and I can get in the hot tub!”  This was such a non sequitur  that I had to ask him what he was talking about.  He reminded me of the rules at Gram’s hot tub, and the fact that he’d turn 12 in just four months.  The kid does not forget anything.

Back to today, in Florida, at the hotel pool.  We chose lounge chairs a few rows back from the pool but right beside the hot tub.  After I sunscreened both Richie and Jillian to within an inch of their lives, the kids walked towards the hot tub and I got comfortable in my chair.  I’d barely taken two breaths when Richie was back at my side, beckoning to me with his hand.  Once again, he’d read the rules.  “Come on, Mom,” he said, “I need some adult supervision.”

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Happy at last (while supervised)

The Best Kid in the Whole World

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I have two kids.  Could I pick a favorite?  You bet I could! But my answer would change from day to day, moment to moment.  Both of my kids are ridiculously fun in their own way, and each also has a unique way of making me want to hide in the bathroom with a box or two of Thin Mints.

Having one child is a gift.  Having more than one child is even giftier (see what I did there?) because that is how God shows you just how little control you have over what they do or say, over how they interpret what you tell them, over how closely they’re paying attention when you think they aren’t. I’m pretty sure that if I only had one child, I would be patting myself on the back way too often for what that child did well, and beating myself up even more often when things went sideways.

Because I have one child with Autism (Richie) and one who is neurotypical (Jillian), the differences between the two are even more pronounced.   And I find that when I have alone time with either of them, they are, in that moment, my favorite child.  Perhaps because I have such a low tolerance for chaos, I seem to be best when I’m with my kids one-on-one.  That’s when I’m best able to be in the moment with them, ignore the distractions, and appreciate them for being just who they are.

A few days ago, I picked up my daughter from school, and we had a very real and touching conversation in the van on the drive home.  When we pulled into the garage, I looked her in the eye and told her sincerely, “I think you are the best kid in the whole world.” She immediately hugged me across the center console and whispered warmly in my ear that I am the best mom in the whole world (which, of course, I am).  Best garage moment ever.

A few days afterwards, without intending to, I said the exact same thing to my son.  Jillian had already left for middle school, so Richie and I were alone eating breakfast.  We were discussing the newest villain he’d invented (a giant skeleton that throws skulls at the good guys).  When we talk about things like this, I can’t help but remember him as the 3-year-old who had no words of his own but would endlessly repeat dialogue from television shows. The 4-year-old who was so afraid of other little kids he could barely function in his preschool class.  The 5-year-old who had to be taught how to tell the difference between a man and a woman, and how to use the correct pronouns for each.  I get so overwhelmed at how hard he’s worked and the progress he’s made.  At that moment, I couldn’t help but put my arm around him, pull him to me, and tell him, “I think you are the best kid in the whole world.”

I looked at him for his reaction to my heartfelt words.  He looked me in the eye, nodded slightly, and said, “Yes.”