Grapefruit is possibly the only fruit I dislike. Everything about it annoys me until it is added to a soda or a sparkling water, go figure. There’s no sense in that other than our senses don’t need to make any – well, sense. I could list all the things I dislike about fresh grapefruit but the top pet peeve, other than the smell, is being randomly squirted in the eye while trying to eat the fruit. 2020, in terms of fruit, was a rotten grapefruit orbisculating us all in the eye but, much like my love of grapefruit soda, there is a silver lining to what we all found unbearable or demoralizing. It took the delight of my kids for me to see the unexpected benefits of living in lockdown when you’re autistic. (I know, I just wrote that.)
They pointed out how nice it was that the parks weren’t crowded. The joy of not feeling hurried. How quiet it was without so many cars on the road. How we could hear the birds, take our time walking through the park without feeling rushed to get away from others, and to live without being chained to a calendar. Not feeling the pressure to meet school deadlines or the pressures of classrooms.
They described to me how much of a relief it was to wear a mask because they finally didn’t have to guess at what facial expression to use when they ran into someone. When I asked what they meant, “I don’t have to make a smile anymore.”
Not that the lockdown wasn’t a punishment for them like the rest of us. They missed their friends terribly and the world at times but they didn’t miss the things that I had hoped I had shielded them from all this time. How naive of me to think that they didn’t notice any of it all this time. A well-timed smile, distraction, or change of subject doesn’t wipe away the stares from strangers, the snide remarks from well-intentioned acquaintances or neighbors, but the worst of all were the comments that I never heard. The ones that other children and adults made to them when I wasn’t present. The jeers that were made just as they walked by others. The whispered comment that was delivered just before the kids ran off to laugh at them. The neighbor who pointed and made fun of them to their own kids.
My kids have become used to this bullying. It isn’t a hit, a shove, or a trip on the playground. No, it’s the crappy remark between a group of kids just as they walk past so the adults do nothing to stop it but the injury lands on the target again and again. It’s an adult who thinks teasing a child is harmless. It’s the person who reacts in disgust at my children just being themselves but to some that’s deserving of their abuse. How dare my kids be openly autistic.
“He’s so weird…” “Did you see that face she makes?…” “Did you HEAR him?!”
During the lockdown they shared some of these comments with me. I don’t cry easily (except for grapefruit but we already covered that), but hearing the things that are said to them. What they daily endured made me ache for them and realize what a relief the lockdown was for them in a way I couldn’t understand. But then, I remembered back to when I was a child and realized that I could for different reasons. The confusion of being mistreated by others because of my father’s crimes, for his skin color, for being poor. How I would go to school with marks on me and no one would say anything until the teachers weren’t listening. They would gather around me, “What did you do to get THAT?!” Inspecting my bruise or fat lip. Not out of sympathy but excitement for hearing what horrible mischief I had gotten up to at home. I would stare at the floor and not answer. Even I knew better than to answer with the truth. It would just lead to more bullying or trouble for my parents, most likely both.
I’m thankful that my kids can’t relate to that cause of shame yet they carry with them a cause that I had hoped to have remedied by staying positive in my parenting, reading and researching extensively, and constructing a support network of friends and professionals to help them. None of that can combat the shitty remarks from the off-chance passing adult or weaselish child (that somehow every other kid views as popular or “nice”). Sometimes the world orbisulates in your eye like a rotten grapefruit and you just have to blink it away and learn to avoid those people or annoy them with your own happiness. I figured I would have to model that for them so I tried my best.
So during lockdown I encouraged them to embrace their freak flags wholeheartedly. I played music for them while we danced in the front yard and hit each other with foam pool noodles in the rain. Let them wear swimsuits with their snow pants and build an igloo in our front yard. Turned a set of bookshelves into a museum of their creations and trinkets, including, but not limited to: cardboard microwave, applesauce pouch caps, rubberbands, broken toy parts, rocks, bones, lint, and used bandaids. It was disgusting and macabre like a childish version of the Catacombs.
We experimented with food for the sake of science and destroyed our kitchen many times over. I showed them how to use knives and made them try the ingredients of what we cooked (whether they ate the end product or not). We even conquered the dreaded fruits of oranges, bananas, and grapefruit. My son has always loved bananas but my daughter’s opinion on the three fruits has not changed. Oranges are only ok as juice, bananas are only ok as a sorbet, and grapefruit smells like sour baby breath. (Side note, I know she wants to be a dermatologist but I swear that kid could make millions as a taste tester or a perfumer. She is so right!)
We did horse riding lessons and overcame my son’s fear of large animals and my daughter’s fear of getting dirty. They’ve bloomed without the constant criticism of other children or the pressure to fit in with the group. Their behavior hasn’t always been easy, I’ll admit. The highs have been as astonishing as the lows especially when they both regressed (thankfully not at the same time). Yet we’ve reached a current phase of them being far more self-reliant and independent than I’ve ever seen in them. Partly just due to development and age but, in many ways, the lockdown gave them a freedom as much as I felt trapped. I missed the world but they were safe from it in the world of their own making. Maybe that’s what all of us are hoping for from these past eighteen months. That we’ve taught our kids to have the grit to survive the worst of times and to prevail over what tries to bring us down.
I asked my daughter what she learned from the past eighteen months and in her usual manner was succinct and direct, “To survive.”