Aaron walked into the kitchen the other night and my eyes were drawn to his feet. Why? Because this is what I saw.
I poked Gary with my hand and motioned for him to look, and then we both stifled our laughter.
“Aaron?” I asked. “Why are you wearing your slipper socks that way?”
“Because I get tired of feeling the lines,” he answered, matter-of-factly.
Who cares about the safety factor of non-skid lines NOT being on the bottom of your feet where they belong, right? Comfort was most important to Aaron, as it always is…not safety, and certainly not style.
Comfort in areas other than clothing is also very necessary to Aaron. However, these “other” areas are sometimes a mystery to us. Or they are areas in which we know Aaron struggles because of his autism but are also situations over which we have no control. And, I might add, over which Aaron has no control. No matter how much we wish he did, or think he certainly could or should, he just doesn’t have the ability to corral his emotions and frustrations like a typical person does.
Here’s an example: Aaron and I were recently in Longhorn Steakhouse for lunch before one of his doctor appointments. There was a table near us where several businessmen sat. They were having a normal conversation, but one of the men in particular was rather loud. When his animated voice was combined with the normal give and take of the other men, their voices at times overtook our area.
I saw Aaron’s eyes dart over to their table several times. Soon I knew that Aaron was bothered by the sound of their talking, especially the louder man. They would talk, and laugh, and talk and laugh some more. Finally, Aaron was downright staring at them, so I told him to stop doing that.
“Why do I need to stop?” he asked.
“Because you need to mind your own business,” I told him.
“How can I mind my own business?!” he impatiently answered. “They’re talking and laughing! I can’t stand it!!”
I was proud of Aaron for verbalizing his feelings to me. I was also nervous that he would tell those men to be quiet, as he has done in other situations. But he didn’t do that, thankfully, and I was able to keep him engaged in our own conversation about movies and aliens and other subjects that were far more valuable to him than all that silly, loud business talk!
Sometimes the slightest nuances can trigger Aaron. Sometimes what triggered him yesterday might not trigger him today. Or what upset him today is something that he laughed at yesterday. We just never totally know or can predict with accuracy when his anger will erupt…or simmer.
This is one of the very most difficult parental aspects of raising a child…or having an adult…with the behavior issues associated with autism. And even when you have had smooth sailing for a while, a storm can always be on the near horizon.
Another example: Last week Aaron got out of bed and came into the kitchen. I don’t remember what I said or did, but I think I told him good morning and I said it with a face that was a little more alert and happy than Aaron wanted at that moment.
He looked at me with bleary eyes, no expression at all, and then flatly said, “I wanted a normal face.”
And I knew, as well as I knew that the sun was shining outside, that Aaron was very irritated. I mean, it was really pretty funny that he wanted a “normal face.” But I know him well and I knew that if I laughed then I would be in for a very rough morning.
So I just turned away…and therefore he couldn’t see my rolling eyes and my smile…and I made no comment. Sometimes silence…my silence…is definitely golden.
But my silence was also to him, at that moment, a cause for further frustration.
“How about if I tell Sarah about your face?!” he said with challenge in his voice.
Sarah is one of the staff at his day group. Aaron thought that I would not like him to tell Sarah about my abnormal morning face.
Oh, Aaron! Here we go, I thought. So I poured his coffee and escaped to my shower, door closed on both Aaron and his unpredictable anger. Thankfully, by the time I was ready to go a while later, he was over his mad spell and all was well. Plus, I don’t think Sarah ever knew about my weird face…but if she did, I’m sure she smiled behind Aaron’s back as well.
My friend, Wendy, texted me yesterday about her particularly rough time with their Elijah the night before. She went to see a play that her other children were in.
“I thought I had my props ready, the stage set, E primed and ready for our outing…but oh, no. It couldn’t be that easy.”
She went on to tell me that he wanted to take his hot chips and his balls into the theater, how he ran in front of a car, how he sat and very loudly crunched his chips, and how humiliated she was.
How I wanted to hug my friend!! How well I understand how she felt!!
We have had those terribly embarrassing and difficult moments with Aaron over the years. In fact, when Aaron attended the day school here for special needs students, we got a phone call one night from his amazing teacher. Mr. Z told us that Aaron had won the Student of the Week award for best exemplifying the classes’ word of the week, which I believe was “patience.” He told us that Aaron would receive the award the next day, and that he just wanted us to know about it before it happened.
Gary and I were amazed and thrilled!!! I felt like Aaron had won a Nobel prize!! I hurried down to the family room to tell Andrea and Andrew.
“Guys!!!” I excitedly started. “Aaron is winning the Student of the Week award tomorrow!!! Guess what the word of the week is?!!”
And without skipping even a beat, Andrea answered, “Hateful?”
We laughed and laughed and laughed. Of course, Aaron wasn’t there to hear any of this. But really, that was a true question. Andrea and Andrew had endured many experiences like Wendy described with Elijah.
At times, Aaron and Elijah just cannot stand to “feel the lines.” None of the rest of us mind the lines at all. In fact, we don’t even see the lines. But our boys do…and so do many, many others who struggle with the issues of autism, be it noises or lights or people or social situations or food or any one of dozens of other frustrating cues that only they see and feel.
So, if you’re out somewhere and you see a meltdown happening, and you see a desperate and exhausted parent, and very humiliated siblings – please don’t assume that this eruption is a result of bad parenting. Don’t assume anything. Just give a smile, lend a hand if needed or possible, show some understanding instead of judgment, and pray for that family as you walk away.
And know that in that paralyzing moment of public shame, every parent would look at you and say with Aaron:
“I just wanted a normal face.”