All week, my son looks forward to his gym class. A time when he can run and jump with other kids his age. A time, without consequences for throwing things in the air, for being free in open space. “Wanna go to the Little Gym!” is the mantra I hear throughout the week.
The moment arrives. We show up. He runs into class forgetting all about his mom, grabs bells to shake and sits in a circle around the teacher. The teacher explains what will happen in class and asks the kids some questions.
The gym has windows into the class. As I watch, I’m holding my breath. Is it just me that does this? He has that far off look in his eyes. He’s further back in the circle than the other kids. As the questions begin, he appears to tune out.
I know he has not gone too far. It’s almost like he is a turtle in his shell. With the number of children in class today, maybe he is feeing overwhelmed or shy. I’m unsure. He has begun the self-talk. The turning of the head, the different facial expressions. The clear differences from the others. And it hurts me to know how this sets him apart, even though he cannot see it himself. His tutor is prompting his attention to the teacher.
The teacher asks his name. The tutor must prompt again. Then, the teacher asks his favorite color. He says “Viper.” This is a toy car he has. The teacher thinks he has asked “Color?” because really, who would say “viper” to that question? He is prompted by his therapist. He says “Blue.” The teacher moves on to the next child. The moment is past but I cannot help but have a sinking feeling when he cannot answer his favorite color in a group of kids. He further distinguishes himself by the mannerism (stim) of repeatedly wiping his hand over his mouth. Admittedly, other children are completely distracted, and no one but me appears to pay much attention.
They move on to an activity. A time for throwing balloons in the air as they learn about following the movement of a ball with their eyes. The idea is to keep the balloons up in the air, against a wall or on the ground. The little guy loves to throw things in the air. This is a dream come true.
He was having fun and the others in the class? They were doing their own thing as well so that it was not a hugely noticeable difference. He appeared to blend a bit easier here. The NT kids kept leaving the gym and running to their moms for a drink of water or to go to the bathroom or just to whine. Their mothers had to prompt them back into the class.
They are doing mere warm-up exercises. The real fun began as they made a “train” and headed off in groups to their “stations.” My son either was too busy doing something else to join, or too interested in looking at the face of the kid in front of him. He did not easily do the train without some assistance.
The theme of the day was racquet sports. The balloon warmup was for use in connection with the racquets. The kids were to bounce the balloons on the strings of the racquets, repeatedly without the balloon falling to the floor. He did pretty good!
This is really a great chance to improve hand-eye coordination without getting hurt by an actual tennis ball. Plus, the balloons are much easier to hit with a racket! The class was pretty much an hour of tossing blown up balloons and jumping off cushioned mats, a great proprioceptive and fun workout for a smiling little boy.
So, the question is why am I so stressed? Why am I so paranoid sitting with the other parents, when my son goes in to class? I wish I could tell you that I just sat back and enjoyed the smiles I saw on his face. But that just would not be true.
I was trying to think whether I’ve stuck a cherry in a pickle jar in the hopes it would blend with the pickles. My little cherry can sit in pickle juice all day but if it is not a cucumber, he’s not going to finish the day as a pickle. He will simply be a stinky cherry. He won’t blend. I can’t try to make him something he is not. So, why then, can’t I simply learn to accept his disability without stuffing him into the pickle juice?
I worry about his ability to integrate. In the scheme of life, is integration and blending really that important? Asking myself that question, the answer will always be yes.
My son may be one of 35 million people worldwide who have a form of autism but he is still in a small minority. Socialization is important and inherent to a healthy psyche in my mind. Socialization comes from participation. Participation has to be meaningful. It has to include give and take, understanding, experiencing on a similar level and communicating. Otherwise it’s simply like co-existing with foreigners that you never quite understand. With autism, this is a difficult goal.
Being different as an adult with autism can be beautiful. It can give you a chance to innovate, create, break barriers and still be accepted with a meaningful and fulfilling life. But when you are a child, struggling to understand the world, to make friends, to find self confidence and discover who you are, being different is more difficult and more stressful. I want to do everything I can as a parent to erase those difficulties as my child grows. Sometimes, I know I will be able to help. Sometimes I will have to stand back, release control and just let it happen.
Once I’ve accepted that, maybe I can sit back and relax when my son says “viper” is his favorite color. Maybe I can just let my perfect little cherry alone to experience the world as it comes. But honestly, sitting back and letting life happen for him, is the hardest part. How is it for you?