Everything here is just like a simile, and almost completely alliterative.

Sunday, April 26, 2009

Into the Woods

Last Saturday, I went on a hike with my autistic son.

It was a hike designed for children with autism spectrum disorders (i.e. non-neurotypical, if I have my euphemisms down correctly) and it was a group activity. I signed us up on another mom’s recommendation, which is kind of unusual for me; I don't tend to hang out with other moms or other parents in general, since they kind of bore the pee out of me. But this seemed like fun, so sure, I figured, why not?

The first thing that hit me was the silence. Any normal neurotypical bunch of nine or ten boys in the woods, the first thing you would notice would be the noise. Laughter, shouting, play-punching, yelling, you name it. Boys = noise. So the quietness was what I noticed. Actually, what I really noticed first was that things that are perfectly normal for my kid are just plain WEIRD when other people’s kids do them. I’m used to my son’s general quietness, but multiply that by eight and it’s kinda freaky. I don’t mean they never talked, but they talked to their parents (and only when spoken to) and not once to each other. There was absolutely zero horizontal communication.

So mostly, they walked. Intently, eyes forward, head down, focusing on what they were doing. As for us parents, we had a great time. I was the only mom on the hike (autism spectrum disorders, if you didn’t know, track heavily in the Y-chromosome population, so this was kind of a dad-son event), but that suited me fine since I tend to get along more easily with men than women anyway. We talked and laughed and joked, and to all appearances had a much better time than our quiet frowning sons, but that probably wasn’t true. Here was another thing: I was always getting crashed into. These kids, they’re not so great with physical boundaries. Most of them, it’s not that they particularly WANT to violate your space; they just have a hard time remembering that you’re residing in it when they’re moving forward intently. Most boys will bump against you, sure, but very few will just walk INTO you. So after a while I learned, and I hung back with the dads, and the kids plowed on up front, like a line of intent dwarves – minus the pickaxes and the singing.

But for all the walking, progress was slow. Because we stopped for snacks, and when we did, well, that took a while. Daniel had to eat the corners off of all his cheezits, and TJ had to fold his ziploc bag into sixteenths. And then re-fold. We stopped to skip rocks across a stream, and that approached dangerous, because it’s pretty normal for these kids to have have, erm, challenges with spatial relationships. Thus, Roran failed to understand that a) a head-sized boulder is not the same as a palm-sized rock and that b) there is a crucial 15-foot difference between standing directly next to the creek and standing behind all the adults while hurling. I quickly moved out of the line of fire, and watched in jealous admiration as the dads took over the whole stone-skipping thing. Something about the male upper arm going on there, I’m sure. Their rocks bounded gleefully across the water, light as dragonflies, to land on the opposite bank. Yeah, but you can’t NURSE, I thought, and was consoled.

Lunch was even more interesting, and it felt good to see that I’m not the only one driven to pleading at mealtimes. Just one more bite, come on, to someone who tuned you out fifteen minutes ago and has consumed maybe two hundred calories since yesterday. TJ sat with us for lunch at the picnic tables. Having a good time? I asked, and TJ promptly clapped his hands over his ears and stayed like that for the rest of lunch. I concentrated on trying to arrange my son’s egg white more pleasingly, but all he wanted was the pretzels, mainly so he could suck the salt off them. Like many of these kids, eating is not a pleasurable activity for him, but intense flavors are: salt, jalapeno, anything with a bite. The egg white was probably futile, but I was just trying to get some protein into him. I worry, because on top of everything else he’s really small for his age – really small — and I’m always trying to shovel some extra calories into him.

The smallness became a factor after lunch, when he stopped being able to keep up with the other kids. So I stayed behind with him, and that was actually the most enjoyable part of it, where he and I just drifted through the woods together. That was when he actually started chatting with me a bit, and by chatting I mean he would respond to things that I said with actual sentences. He doesn’t initiate conversation, but that’s fine; he’s easy to be around and happy (most times) to answer you when you need to hear him. Falling behind allowed him to pull out his lizard, too. He keeps a stash of stretchy toys around, because lots of times he needs to have stuff in his hands, and there is certain feel that he needs – the rubbery stretchy thing. So he would have to stop in the woods and groove on his lizard for a while, which I’ve noticed he doesn’t like to do around other people; facial contortions and things are involved, and I think he’s not so much embarrassed about it, it’s just that it feels private, like going to the bathroom. And it’s probably an equally intense physical need.

I carried him the last bit of the hike, which was of course ridiculous – he’s far too big for it now, and it wore me completely out. But. . . small thin arms around me, warm breath in my ear, his forehead leaning against the back of my neck. These things will only be mine for a few more months, because he is growing, even if slowly. And once or twice he even initiated, like he will do sometimes if it’s just the two of us.

“Do you think we’re lost?” he whispered conspiratorially, when the other hikers had rounded a bend out of sight.

“Probably. We might have to camp here for the night.”

A sharp intake of breath against my back. His voice was thrilled and frightened. “Where should we spend the night?”

I forget, even after all this time, that joking does not register, and that he can’t read my tone, especially without being able to see my face. “I’m just kidding. We’ll be okay.”

“All right,” he said, and tightened his arms on me.

When he was very young, about two, maybe three, it was the worst. We had a name for things, a diagnosis for why our son was there but not there, but no real plan of action, no idea what any of this meant, no idea what his life would be like. I was home with him, not working at the time, and he was behind a wall I couldn’t get to. Literally, sometimes. It was like he was locked in a prison and was trying to get out, but couldn’t quite, like some nightmare you or I might have, only his never ended. Something would set him off — rarely anything I understood or even knew about. His wailing would begin, but you couldn’t touch him, never never touch him. That made it infinitely worse. He would drag himself into a room — we were living in an apartment, and my bedroom was the closest, so most often it would be there — and push the door shut, and simply scream on the other side of it, hoarse wails of wild grief and terror. Please honey please I would beg, but his sturdy arms would be pressed against the door on the other side, no no no no no. But worst of all was when he didn’t say no, but Mommy. Just my name, over and over, like he didn’t want to be doing this, and wanted me to save him, help him somehow, but I couldn’t. Mommy Mommy Mommy. And I would keep saying I’m here, I’m right here. I would work my hand under the gap of the door, I would try to reach him and touch him. After a while he might move away from the door, and then I could belly crawl into the room — not too fast, or I might scare him away, just a bare inch at a time — and edge closer and closer. Mommy Mommy Mommy. It seemed like it would take hours to reach him, more hours to touch him. These were my days.

So now, when he crawls up in bed with me and lets me snuggle against him, or when he wants me to hold him and pick him up and carry him? Yeah, you better believe I do it. You better believe it.

“This looks like a good place for a camp,” he said into my neck, as we rounded a bend on a sunny little meadow.

“It does,” I said, and there we sat for a bit. He sucked the salt off his pretzels and rubbed his lizard; I watched him. It was a good day.

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