Yesterday was my son’s first day at gymnastics. I was pretty excited about the whole little kids’ gym idea. It would help him learn balance, develop strength and interact with peers. It was only 10 minutes from my office. Class was one hour. It fit the tutor’s schedule. They had accepted other ASD kids into their programs and did not bat an eye when I explained his need for an aide. I had timed it out to leave to get there right on time.
Of course, when I was readly to leave, he had just then pooped his pants. Why, oh why, do they do it when you have to leave? I rushed to clean up, knowing my timing was now off.
As we got in the car, I asked my son’s tutor if she had told him where we were going. She had told him but not that morning. Neither had I. He was calm but asked where we were going. He was a little nervous, but walked right in with no crying and no fighting. This was terrific.
Once inside, my son was still fine with it all. He did not protest. He did not appear frightened. He was observing his environment.
The building that houses the classes has an open reception in half its area. The other half is a gym full of mats, uneven bars, and low and high balance beams. Separating the two rooms is a wall of windows. Chairs are set up so parents can watch the class.
The little guy and his tutor were taken in to the already started class. The kids were in a circle on a large red mat. Again, I nervously awaited him to bolt, to yell out or otherwise make his presence known. Nope. He sat down with the tutor.
Watching from a folding chair, a teacher introduced me to a mother sitting next to me. It was socially awkward. The mother proceeded to share the class routine and asked me which child was mine. “The boy,” I responded as it appeared, at first glance, that he was the only one. I asked which child was hers. She told me it was the girl in purple with pigtails. She said that the only other boy, “Jack” would be happy to see another boy in the class.
I nodded. I did not verbally respond. I realized, since she knew this other boy’s name and class procedure, she probably knew which one was my kid. Plus, I was not nearly as certain “Jack” would be “happy”.
I sat back, hoping she would quit talking to me, and observed. Perhaps this woman was the most kind and generous person ever. Perhaps, she had someone in the family or her circle of friends like my son. Clearly, I had no idea. And yeah, just the same as she should not judge my son, neither should I judge her. But, I’m not going to lie to you. I dread strangers asking. I dread potential negativity and so, awkwardly here, I opted for avoidance. Me, the person trying to increase awareness, to educate, to spread the word. I avoided! I wussed out of what could have been an enlightening conversation for both of us.
Why? Well, because I don’t want everyone focusing on my son, checking out his differences, placing him out there as an “autism awareness” display. I wanted him to have fun. I wanted him to play, to interact, to blend. Was I silently manipulating? Was my son’s disability just so obvious to everyone? After all, he was the only one with a tutor, constantly prompting his participation.
The other mom must’ve caught on, or simply, by observing my son, decided she: (a) probably couldn’t “friend” me because my son was “different”; (b) didn’t know what to make of my son’s “different” behavior or how to approach me or what to say or (c) simply was doing her own thing. I want to vote for (c) but since we were sitting next to each other for an hour and no conversation occurred after the first 15 minutes, my cynical self thinks probably (a) or (b).
My own observations of my son left me with mixed emotions. On the one hand, I was elated that he came to the class, entered a group of students already sitting down, calmly sat and joined them and did not engage in behaviors that would cause him to stick out like a sore thumb. On the other hand, there is a face he makes that is what I would call his wondering face. This is it:
This was the face he used a lot during the circle time portion of gymnastics. Of course, he was brand new in class. He’d never been there before. He was in a group with kids he did not know. He was with two teachers he did not know. They were talking about things he did not know. So, to me, his behavior, and this face was fantastic, especially given his usual strict adherence to routine. It was only disconcerting because it heightened my awareness of his differences from the other kids.
Asked questions as a group, many of the girls yelled out answers. My son silently looked around the room. Because I know him, I know he was listening. He was absorbing all that was going on around him. He just does it differently. He responds slower or not at all. He knows a lot of the answers. He just doesn’t shout them out. He may have also been wondering why the hell he was there.
I admit too that it’s all new to me. This was the first time I observed him in a setting with his “peers” since he started preschool before his diagnosis. Clearly, he has made tremendous progress since that day. Then, he wandered away from circle time, touched things that were off limits, tried to turn on a computer, completely ignored the teacher and played with the door. Today, he sat, was relatively quiet (but for the soft self-talk), and he participated in activities in a meaningful way. He was able to somewhat imitate the other children. It really was impressive.
But the social awkwardness of regular parents versus me leaves me feeling odd. You know, it’s that I’m-different-because-my-child-is-different feeling. I want to say I don’t care but I do. I want to be mad but I’m not. I’m sure it’s as awkward for them as well. They don’t want to ask, why is your son looking away? Why is he talking to himself? Why can’t he follow direction? Why is the adult in there with him?
Overall, my little boy did great! He ran around, jumped, tumbled, walked the balance beam. This all leave me wondering how to be a better parent and a better advocate.
I need to walk a balance beam too. I need to learn some social gymnastics.