Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Two Steps Forward, One Step Back


It has become easy to forget that my kid is a little different. Because he’s our first child, his behavior at home has always seemed normal -- always been our normal -- since we had nothing to compare it to until his neurotypical sister came along almost three years ago.

A few weekends back, we took the kids to the classic car show that’s held in our town center every year. We started going three years ago, when Squidboy developed a keen interest in old-fashioned cars. It’s really a combination street fair and car show, with music, food, and kids’ activities, as well as the parade of automotive awesomeness, and that first year we figured it was going to be a smash-hit with the kid.

Managing expectations is a lesson most parents have to learn; those of us with autistic or other developmentally different kids learn it in spades. That first year, Squidboy had little interest in the cars; what captured his intense interest was a store that sold ceiling fans. We spent most of the afternoon in that store, watching the various contraptions go around, and around, and around...

Our efforts to lure him to the car show/fair were a royal bust. He had (and has) a very limited diet, so junky fair food was no attraction, and he wanted nothing to do with the various bouncy houses full of other happy kids. And let’s not even talk about the music, which was loud enough to bug him from several blocks away.

The following year, we went with very different expectations and a different game plan. We went after the bands had wrapped up, and allowed enough time to check out the window of the (closed) fan shop. We didn’t stay for the parade, just let Squidboy meander around as he wanted. Much, much better.

This year, he was like a different kid. He passed the fan shop with nary a glance, and went three rounds in both the bouncy house and on the giant slide. He’s less interested in cars, but was game enough to watch the parade. He danced with his sister to the '50s band. We happily ate hamburgers in a street-front restaurant filled with noisy patrons. A perfect -- ”normal” -- family afternoon.

Then yesterday came the inevitable reminder that he still struggles with some “normal” activities. It was the end-of-year class picnic, and the combination of excitement, lots of social interactions, and a large group of kids spelled multiple meltdowns and a bit of “shut-down.” Most of it was fine; he played with his friends, then when things were too much, he’d go off and play on his own with the flying saucer (his current obsession) he’d brought. But the minute somebody looked at him the wrong way, he was howling in the dirt.

What’s really remarkable to me, though, is that the other kids took it in stride. Nobody teased, called him crybaby, or any of the other lovely things I can readily remember experiencing (and doing, much to my shame) in school. Two of his special friends comforted him and helped calm him. This was a welcome change from last year’s picnic, which went much the same way, except that a few other boys took to goading Squidboy to make him cry (which he does, loudly and lustily— so very satisfying to a bully.)

It seems the steps forward happen, not just for Squidboy, but for us, and for everyone else who has been learning to deal with his differences.