While both of our sons are on the spectrum, there is very little about their autism that is similar. Their needs, their behaviors, their anxiety, their interests and their levels of tolerance are complete opposites. When they were very young, we would attend events as a family, bringing impossibly large bags of tricks for each child, just to say that we did it. We simply hoped to conquer the task. Forget about enjoyment. Our goal was to survive the event with all four of us still there by the end.
As the children grew, this became increasingly more difficult to do. One event would be too loud. Another had far too many people. Perhaps one was not accepting to the pacing of an anxious child or the nervous incessant chattering of another. Obsessions grew in them both, which took them in different directions and pulled my husband and me with them.
We became a family divided.
"Mom?" our younger son asked that day in December, "Can we get our Christmas tree today?"
Thunk! I felt as though a chunk of the moon had fallen from the sky and landed onto my shoulders just as I had already grasped the weight of responsibilities that I was to carry for the rest of the day. Ugh. Another thing. I looked into the face of that child, bright and bursting with excitement for the holiday season, and yet all I felt was dread and guilt. He had no idea that I was ever on the brink of buckling under the demands of caring for the two of them.
He was just a child wanting what any other child would want, and I wanted so desperately to fill his life with memories other than autism.
That was how we found ourselves in the parking lot of an area farmer's market that crisp December evening. A familiar and happy destination for our family during the entire autumn season, the market had always been a place where our children had felt at home. That night, less crowded and missing its usual fall festivities, it was quiet and peaceful in the cold night air. Soft music was playing, and an army of pines stood proudly about, just waiting for our inspection.
Our younger son was into the cold weather and the task of picking a tree. He ran from the car with enthusiasm into the selection of pines and screamed with delight. Older Brother, however, was not excited about the weather or the activity. He made that quite clear to us on the ride to the market.
"Mall," he said.
"No mall," we countered. "We're getting a Christmas tree."
"Mall!" he insisted.
"No. First tree. Then mall," we told him.
We were not giving in. This time, he had to take a hit for the team. He was old enough, and despite the fact that he had more needs than his brother which required our attention, our older son did not have more wants that would rank in importance over his brother's.
The whining started as soon as he got out of the car. In an attempt to give my husband a rare opportunity to enjoy time with Little Brother, I signaled that I would stay with Big Brother. A family divided at the same destination, I decided, was not so abnormal.
"Mall!" our son spat at me.
"Tree first," I told him.
He tried to push past me in an attempt to run back to the car. Using physical force was a common tactic he used in place of the verbal communication that he lacked.
"Listen here!" I said sternly as I stopped him in his path. "We do not always get our choice. However, today, your choice will be second. Tree first. Mall second."
He didn't like this. He whined as we walked hand-in-hand over to the trees. He began to scream as we wound our way in and out among the selections. He tried to twist my arm so that I would release his hand in reaction to the pain. The small crowd began to watch.
"I know that you don't like this," I told him, "but I know that you can do this." I encouraged.
He responded by biting his finger. It was the special needs version of a protest. He was being an ugly version of himself. I could certainly tell. Could those watching us understand? I didn't know, and I had long since stopped caring. The challenge before me required my full attention.
Changing tactics, I decided to redirect him into the general store, something he usually liked. However, when he saw that his actions had not won him a golden ticket to the mall, he stopped in the doorway, refusing to walk another step. As customers walked in and out of the doors, the small crowd inside looked up at us, unsure how to react.
I was getting frustrated with him. Forget expectations of a happy family outing. I'd given that up in the parking lot. He was being so stubborn!
"Listen," I hissed, "we are here to get a Christmas tree whether you like it or not. Your brother wants to do it so deal with it! That's what families do!! Now you march your behind inside while they get that tree and, if you are lucky, then we will take you to the mall!"
"MALL!" he screamed.
"TREE FIRST THEN MALL!" I
He didn't move. So...I helped him. The small crowed inside pretended not to look at us. Our son was whining and stomping and bucking around like a wild bronco until finally, he decided to sit down on the floor in protest.
"Fine by me, kid," I told him, "we'll just sit here calmly until they are done shopping."
Why did I have to get sassy with him? Why? Couldn't I have let my inner voice take care of that? As soon as I pointed out his tactical error, he switched gears. Suddenly, he jumped up and bolted for the door. I grabbed him, and we both landed on the floor in a big pile.
It hurt--but not so much as the kicks and bites he gave me next. We had found ourselves in a war. There. In the middle of a crowd. I was positive that he was so mad that he was in flight mode, not even fully understanding that he was hurting me as he tried to run away in order to get to the object of his obsession--that mall.
Absolutely everybody in the crowd was staring, and I really did not mind. Let them see what they would see. Let them learn what they would learn. Let them take away what they chose to take away. Our family outing had taken a completely different path, and I found myself in the position of teaching our son a lesson in public. I could not back down, for doing so would risk teaching him that it was okay to scream, bite, kick and yell his way to get what he wanted.
If I allowed it then, at eight years old, imagine how much more difficult it would have been to break it at age eighteen.
We were still tangled on the ground, there, barely in the entrance to the general store, both breathing heavily from our struggle.
"I love you," I said to him, holding him tightly. "This is NOT okay. You will NOT get what you want by pushing and hurting people. If you continue to do this, you could find other people pushing and hurting you in response to you. They could do it when I'm not around. You simply must stop."
We sat for a while. The crowd began to move.
"When you are calm, we can stand, walk around the store once and then return to the car." I told him.
And that is what we did.
As I approached the car, our younger son ran up to me and said with excitement, "Mama! We got a tree!!"
"Wow! I see it, honey!" I said with more feigned excitement than I cared to admit. "It's the best one we've had!"
The boys climbed in the car as I wiped away tears that had begun to roll down my cheeks. I cried for happiness that our younger son managed to have a normal experience. I cried because I was bruised and bitten. I cried because it was my own child who inflicted those wounds on me. I cried for relief that the event was over.
But most of all, I cried because there are parts of our sons' disabilities, ones that are ugly and ones that draw crowds, which we must endure for the greater good. That night, our older son experienced some growing pains. Because of his disability, those pains took on a different form than would the pains of a typical child. In that moment, my heart was heavy for his struggle.
We started down the road with our new Christmas tree tied to the roof of the car. From the back seat, I hear a voice quietly say, "Mall."
I looked out the window and let my mind take me to a far away place.
This entry was written in response to the word prompt "Crowd" issued by the Group Blogging Experience 2 (GBE2).
Photos courtesy of Morguefile
Sending love and strength to my fellow special needs parents who live in the trenches with me every day.