“I says I want PEA-NUT-BUT-TERRR. Did you eeear me, Ma?!”
Owen was playing with his racetrack and making his follow up request for lunch. If you ask that classic parental refrain of, “Did you hear me?” He thinks you’re saying, “Did you ear me?” Makes way more sense if you think about it and our literal thinkers in this household would agree.
“Yes, I did, O. Can you ask with kindness?”
Exasperated sigh and muttering, “Peanut butter, mama, PLEASE.”
Lunch consumed, diaper changed after UN level negotiations, backpack loaded with snacks and five pounds of Hot Wheels, and we’re ready to go on the much anticipated ride in the car. I’ve never known a human who enjoys riding in the car as much as my son. If someone performed a hypnotism on him and informed me he had been Lassie in a past life I would simply say, “Yep.”
“Mama, we go in the car and go fast, PLEASE?” I love how he emphasizes the word please and his entire body tenses up like someone gave him an unexpected electric shock. His fists are clenching and unclenching, his eyebrows are going up and down for emphasis in unison and separately, and he’s making micro-jumps as he involuntarily jerks his legs while standing.
I pause with my car keys in hand and ponder what these next few months might bring for us.
He’s in preschool but that’s special education and now they want him to be in a mainstream classroom, is it too much? Is he ready? Will he have friends?
We load up the car and I help him with the straps on his carseat and settle him with his baby bottle and toys like we always do. We drive to the grocery store and sing along to the same songs that we do every time (the soundtrack to “Trolls”). We park and I go through the ritual of reassuring him and talking him through the steps of what we’re doing until he’s ready to leave the car. I take deep breaths as I walk around to his side of the car with the grocery cart hoping that he doesn’t meltdown and scream during the trip or hurt himself trying to pull himself free from the seat in the grocery cart. I open the door and smile, “Hey-O! Hey-O! Let’s go-eee-O!”
He smiles and twirls his feet in response, “Hi, mama! Hi, mama!”
We sing and chant through the hour at the store. Helping to calm him but completely distracting me from trying to find the items we need. I pause as he asks questions and I try to park the cart as to not block the aisle but far enough from breakable items so as not to appear in his hands to be launched onto the floor or into the cart behind him. “Mama, mama, mama, mama, moo-doo, moo-doo, you-do, you-do, you-do…”
I’ve stopped noticing the stares. I only look up when I hear a giggle or a laugh and to those I smile in thanks. The sighs I try to ignore and the muttered obscenities trigger a glimpse at them so I know to steer the opposite direction if I see them coming again. I’ve even had people shove me or run into me with their cart to be sure I notice their annoyance with him and then comment on my parenting. It’s those moments that remind me that people view my kids as different and not in a good way. It’s in those moments that I have to choose my battles and I opt for ignoring the person and instead reminding my kids that “weird” is good and “different” means they’ll never be boring. Also, that some people suck.
Just then an elderly man pushes in front of me between the shelf I was browsing and myself causing me to jump backwards. I clutch the cart and Owen towards me so he wouldn’t knock them over as he smashed his way through. I glance behind me at the wide open aisle that we had left for someone to pass us. So many comments went through my head and I chose to address Owen instead, “You ok? That guy was rude, huh? That was really scary.”
“Yeah…it ok, mom. He mean.”
I chuckle and we make a beeline for the checkout. I know when not to push him and the exchange clearly upset him. We have a turn of luck and one of our favorite checkers is at the till and there’s almost a zero wait time as I unload the cart. I sigh and feel a weight of anxiety lift off my chest as I arrange our items and chat with her as we fill the conveyor belt. Owen sings to himself and dances in his seat gabbering to himself as he tries to reach for the checkout impulse items just dangling out of his reach. Amanda greets us and before I can say “hello” I hear from behind me, “Oooo, you got PRIT-TEEEE hair!”
The checker and I crack up and I agree with him, “You do! I love it too.” But he wasn’t done.
“You’se got rainbows in your hair!” (Which she does. Her hair is dyed like the comicbook character, Harley Quinn.) She looks at him in surprise and nods as this is the first time he’s ever spoken to her other than “thank you”. She and I chat as I help her bag and I silently pat myself on the back when I suddenly hear Owen exclaim, “No…no, no, no, noooo!”
I turn to see the elderly man parked behind us in the checkout line and he’s glowering at Owen while leaning on his cart. Owen has squeezed his eyes shut and is chanting no as he clenching his hands against his face. I pull the cart away from the end of the belt as quickly as possible and put myself between the two of them as the man starts to push his cart forward. My mouth opens to say something when I hear from behind me, “Ooops, sorry! This line is closed, sir. You’ll have to go down to three. I’m goin’ on break after these nice people.”
“Should of put that thing,” jabbing at the “register closed” sign,”OUT before then. I’ve been standing here – “
“Oh, I’m sorry but Mandy is right here and he’ll help you.”
The man stares at me, grumbles, and shuffles off with his cart. Owen is staring at the floor and holding his cars. I look up at her hoping she understands how thankful I am. She simply smiles and says, “He’s a real jerk. Every time. Don’t mind him.”
I nod and try to get a hold of myself and wonder if she knows how often I wish people would step in like she just did and I want to tell her but I’m trying not to cry. I hate putting Owen through experiences like this, and normally opt to have groceries delivered for this very reason, but luckily these incidents are less frequent as they used to be and he recovers quickly now. Partly due to his growth but also a change in attitudes around us as people become more aware of autism. Acceptance seems to be a long way off.
It’s me who has to accept that these moments will just happen at times because no one can ever anticipate every jerk that wanders across their path. I’m loading the car when Owen looks up from his snack bag of celebratory crackers and says, “I like your hair.”
“Oh!… thank you, baby.” I freeze and turn to look at him as I set the bags down in the car.
“Did you just say you like my hair?”
“Uh-huh, and I like your nose, your mouth, your eyes, your shirt – I like your shirt.”
“Wow, thank you! I like your WORDS. What color is it?”
“That’s right! What color is my…sweater?!”
“That’s right!” I thought about what to ask about next and an idea came to mind, “What color are my eyes?”
“Green!” (Hah! Take that Jamie.)
We begin to drive home and we’re singing along with Justin Timberlake as my phone begins to ring. I pull over and answer, it’s news about some much needed help for us, those tears I fought off earlier come back and I rest my head on the steering wheel for a moment in gratitude. The sound of his wind up car stops in the background and I hear his voice, “You ok, mom? You sad?”
I lift my face in complete shock and turn to face him. His eyebrows are working up and down in discomfort as he blinks his eyes and looks off to break eye contact.
He noticed me crying AND my mood? He asked if I was ok?!
“It’s ok, baby. Sometimes people cry when they’re happy too.”
He wouldn’t look at me right away and eventually looked at me with a fearful grimace. His features relaxed when he saw me smiling but he still didn’t want to meet my eyes, “Ok, mom.”
Maybe he will be ready for a conventional classroom after all but, whether he will or not, I’ll always worry about him and wonder if I’m making the right decisions for him. We head down to get Nora from school and he sings to himself as I push him in the stroller. As we near the school I hear him say, “Yay, we go get sister!”
“Do you want to go to this school like sister?”
We enter the lobby and another child about his size watches him climb out of the stroller. I tense up and wonder what the child might say as he approaches us. Owen hasn’t noticed him yet as he investigates the play area looking for a certain truck. He begins lining up his orange cars and the boy steps next to him to watch. Owen looks up and puts his arm up in the air and holds it over his cars protectively to keep the kid at bay from taking anything. The boy smiles and asks, “Do you want to play?”
My heart is no longer where it should be in my chest as I’m busy swallowing past it and my panic. I start moving towards them but try not to move too quickly since nothing has happened to justify me doing so. Yet any other tableau such as this has ended in a fist to cuffs and tears in the past. As I near them I can hear Owen say, “Ok.” Then I watch in complete amazement as Owen hands the other boy a car that was on the table, not his own, and they commence lining up cars together.
I back away and join in the discussion near me without breaking my gaze from the wonderous scene before me. A sight that means little to the others around us but one that has great meaning to me as it answers my nagging fears.
He will be ok.
The afternoon bell rings and Owen leaves me completely gobsmacked by running towards me instead of away then announces, “It time, mom! Let go get sissa’!”
“Ok, bud. Climb into the stroller.” I waited for the inevitable argument but instead he simply did as I asked and said, “Ok.”
It’s hard to trust that his progress won’t regress at some point because the, truth is, it might since it has before. Yet, even if it does, I now know he can do the work because he’s capable and that we can do it together.