I try to say something the kids think is strangely funny or naughty to get them to smile for pictures. When I was a kid, I panicked when someone said “smile” because it normally meant I was suppose to hide being scared or that I was injured. It’s that feeling of being anxious and having someone say “relax” and magically rendering it impossible to do so. It wasn’t ok to be sad and my mood was never to be anything inconvenient or unpleasant to others. The last thing I would want is my kids to lie to me about how they feel. Yet how often do we lie to our kids to make sure we don’t upset them?
How often do we fight back tears and paste on a smile instead so their world can be brighter? But what are we teaching them by doing that?
Anxiety is common with autism and yet when it’s coupled with language difficulties and facial expressions not necessarily matching their emotions… The chances for misunderstandings are limitless. It feels at times that I’m having to play a game of charades with myself just to keep the meltdowns and panic attacks from my kids at bay. The world upsets them without any effort or intention by simply having other people cross paths with them. As much as they love other children, they are hurt so easily. Their guileless nature leaves the underbelly of their emotions exposed to all.
I find myself being more protective than I ever could imagine. It’s hard not to hover just to keep them from injury yet there’s no way to protect them from the unpredictable slights from other children and the benign interactions that they interpret as hurtful. A voice too high pitched, a person not waiting for them to respond, a light touch to point out a character on their shirt.
We changed their diet, diagnosed their food allergies, buy the expensive supplements. It all feels like a placebo at times and yet I’m willing to try anything just to keep them safe and happy. My mind is stewing over it as I edit photos and notice a forced smile on Nora’s face as she blinked in the sunlight, squinting at me, saying “cheese”. She pats me and brings me back to the moment. I look at her and ache with the worry only a mom can feel.
“Are you ok, mama?” She smiles and leans in to hug me.
“I’m ok, baby.”
She brushes a tear away, “I’ll get you a tissue.”
I smile for her, “Ok.”
There’s a long pause and fumbling noises from the bathroom.
“Here, mama. It’s toilet paper, not tissue, but I promise it’s clean.”
I breathe deeply, motion her to my lap, enfold her, and repeat our mantra that was taught to us for her anxiety in my head and it dawns on me. I need to be honest with her about my emotions even in these moments so she’ll be honest with me.
“What do we do with worries?”
She smiled with pride as she recites and pantomimes, “We face it, we look at it, and tell it to go away!”
“That’s right. Mama is worried today and I got to thinking about your stomach hurting from you worrying. I have an idea, you wanna hear it?”
“Ok,” she giggled and vined her arms around my torso.
“Once we know the worry we need to: name it, talk about it, and try to fix it. What do you think?”
She thought about it, puckered her mouth and scrunched into a mischievous expression, “I like it. Right now my tummy is worried because it wants ice cream. Can we fix it?”