I have my share of days when I feel like parenting a special needs child is harder than just plain parenting. One thing that make it hard is that my kid needs to know what will happen next. Routine is important because it helps him avoid an inability to process events. If he does not know what’s happening, he has less understanding, control, coping, and ultimately fear and meltdowns.
So, my job is to make sure my kid knows what’s happening in advance. He has memorized that, for example, Monday through Fridays are school, Wednesdays, Speech, that kind of thing. Anything outside his regular routine must be planned, preferably, months in advance. If not, well, see above.
So, obviously, the flip side is that we are not a spontaneous family. There are no last minute substitutions and when there has to be? Lord knows I need the skill of a magician, hypnotist and entertainer to distract from the original whatever-it-is.
So, against that backdrop, on Saturday, I elected to be spontaneous. And, in doing that, I learned how having a child with autism can be better than the alternative.
First, being “spontaneous” is never really spontaneous – it involves analysis. I had to decide how the event is likely to be received, processed, engaged in, and whether he was physically and emotionally up for it. And I’m not talking about something Earth-shattering like taking a trip out of town. Usually, I’m talking about something like using an unknown public restroom because I think he might poop his pants, or going straight, instead of turning left, as an alternate route home.
This one was a little more complex. You see, I have a little addiction problem to a beverage only Nordstrom’s Coffee Shop makes, my Vanilla Chai. I have been getting that drink for 12 years. You might consider me a loyal customer.
Recently, the Nordstrom I frequent has been undergoing a remodel. When the store first went in, they had children in the community paint tiles for the children’s department floor. Tootles obsessed on them whenever we’d walk through on the way to the coffee shop. The tiles were pulled out for the remodel.
Now that’s not the change that I’m talking about (although when he first got wind of that he did have a meltdown/cry-fest). The thing was that Nordstrom invited my son participate in creating a new tile to help replace the old ones. I hadn’t RSVP’ed because I never read postcard mail.
Saturday was the day. Everyone who was “anyone” was going to paint a tile. We were walking through the department toward my “chai goal”. I saw the releases for the tiles, made inquiries at noon, and got a slot for the 3:30 afternoon tile painting for my son. I was told the time slot he’d been fit into, 20 minutes before we had to be there.
I gave my son a debriefing. I told him we were going to do a painting project. Strangely, he accepted it all in stride. We entered the store. He stood in line without protest. (there was one kid ahead of us). He was given an apron and a water bottle. He was working the water bottle table.
They put together a group of kids of all ages. (Here is my thought process: “Oh, no! What if they don’t let parents in? Will I have to tell them my son is autistic and I have to help him? Will he say or do something inappropriate that will trigger weird looks from the other kids that will cause him hurt? (there were kids from ages 3-12) Will he protest doing the project? Will the other parents say anything? Will they reject my son’s art?”). The kid? He was happily oblivious, drinking out of the water bottle.
A goofy old guy, who should have quit dying his hair 20 years ago, was instructing the kids (for like 15 minutes). The tiles were in the shape of a fish. Tootles looked at me and said loudly, while everyone else was quiet, “I love you mommy! Mommy to love you! Be quiet like at Weight Watchers!”) The instructor told all the parents to let their kids do their own painting. Then, finally, he told them to have at it.
Guess what? As soon as the old guy gave the “go ahead”, all the parents jumped up to coach their kids. The girl sitting next to Tootles and the boy on the other side, kept looking at Tootles’ fish. They both seemed highly agitated and stressed. Their parents kept telling them to look at their own fish. I looked around the room and could feel the stress coming from the other kids – they knew the artwork was “permanent” and would be on display. The other kids didn’t seem happy.
I laughed to myself over my worries. I was the lucky one. I had the best kid in the room. He was not stressed. He was not concerned. He was humming and singing – talking to me. He seemed to be the only one.
Tootles was the first one finished. We took our fish out to the sign out table where they were wrapped in bubble wrap to be taken to the kiln for firing and his name was confirmed. No one followed. They were still in there stressing out.
My son was happy. Thus, I was happy. After all, what’s better than a new water bottle and an extra ride down the escalator after some stress- free painting? I guess those other kids will never know.