A few months ago, as I headed out of our neighborhood taking Aaron to his day group, I noticed that my right turn signal didn’t sound right. The second time that I pushed up on the turn signal lever and heard that very fast clicking sound, I knew what it was. Either my front or my rear turn signal was out. I drove across town, dropped Aaron off, and then before leaving I got out of the van to check the turn signals. Sure enough, the rear signal wasn’t working.
Bummer! Of all the days to have this happen, it had to be on the day I had several errands to run instead of just going straight home. One of the places I had to go was McConnell Air Base…and they are super picky there about things like the speed limit and vehicles working correctly. Imagine that!
I drove under the speed limit the entire time I was on base and was thankful that I only had to use my right turn signal once. But I was sure that this one time would be the one time that an MP was behind me!
I had also promised Aaron that I would take him to one of his favorite stores, Big Lots, after I picked him up. Our local Big Lots had closed, so I had to once again do some extra driving in my defective van. I never knew how many times I needed that right turn signal until it wasn’t working! And I decided a possible conversation with a police officer was a better choice than the conversation I would need to have with Aaron if I told him our Big Lots trip was cancelled.
I wanted to paste a sign in the rear van window that explained my situation…to let others know that I knew my light wasn’t working…to tell them that I really DO know how to use a turn signal. How many times have I said that very thing out loud about other drivers who don’t use their turn signals? I was feeling a little guilty, wondering how many of their signals were broken, too.
Sometimes we just can’t see and don’t understand what a person is going through, do we? We look at the outside and think things look fine, but the inner workings of a person are far more complex than what we outwardly see. This fact is very true for every single one of us but is very VERY true for our Aaron.
To be clear, I am not saying that Aaron is broken. What I AM saying is that Aaron’s responses and handling of life situations can manifest outward behaviors that are extremely frustrating for others around him to understand and handle correctly. His brain is wired way differently than typical people, and so his turn signal often doesn’t let anyone around him know the direction he is getting ready to take until he’s turned that corner and there’s no going back.
Karen Williams wrote in a paper years ago concerning students with autism: “Rage reactions/temper outbursts are common in response to stress/frustration. Children with Asperger’s Syndrome rarely seem relaxed and are easily overwhelmed when things are not as their rigid views dictate they should be. Interacting with people and coping with the ordinary demands of everyday life take continual Herculean effort.”
Williams was writing about young students, but this same description also applies to adults with autism…to our adult with autism…our Aaron – who definitely flipped his turn signal on last week at the theater.
First, the set-up: Aaron had been home for three days this past week due to our severe weather chances and flooding concerns. Aaron loves being at home where he is totally relaxed and able to do all the things he enjoys. But when he must re-enter normal life, like going back to his day group at Paradigm, it is often a huge struggle for him. And therefore, for everyone around him.
On Friday, Aaron was reluctant to go to Paradigm. Even the thought of Friday movie day didn’t really help him. He decided not to go to the theater, despite having his nine dollars in his wallet for popcorn and the prospect of a fun movie to see. I encouraged him to go to the theater, and his staff encouraged him to go after texting with me. But no one MADE him go. However, that is not at all how Aaron saw it. His anger was getting deeper.
Second, the incident(s): At the theater, Aaron took a behavioral turn that everyone could see despite his lack of a working signal. I don’t even know all that happened there, and don’t really want to know. I believe, though, that his day group staff was told by theater staff that Aaron needed to leave. No matter what I know about Aaron and what I understand about his autistic outbursts, these times test my love and my patience. I’m a normal mom who is terribly embarrassed when Aaron blows it, especially in public.
I wonder what all he did there. Who saw him? Did anyone we know see and hear our son acting that way? Now what?
Third, the repercussions: When I went to pick Aaron up at the theater, he was sitting in the Paradigm van. Aaron emerged from the van with a very unhappy face, and I knew something not-so-good had happened. Athena, his kind staff, gave me a very brief update, but Aaron’s still-angry mood told us it was not the time to discuss it.
He and I talked about it on the way to Wal-Mart, and again inside the store. But Aaron was saturated with frustration and guilt so I knew I could only say so much before I would push him over the edge again. Two repercussions that initially happen with Aaron, when that angry turn he took is over, are regret and guilt. He truly wishes that he hadn’t gone so far in his anger.
Aaron was totally compliant in Wal-Mart, overly so. This is his way of making up for his angry actions. At the self-checkout counter, Aaron was super helpful. He held my coupons, helped unload the cart, and couldn’t say thank-you enough to the clerk who assisted us.
“Am I being good, Mom?” he asked at one point. “Am I helping?” And he looked me square in the eyes, waiting for my response and my affirmation. It would have been so easy for me to say, “Yes, Aaron, but I sure do wish you would have been this nice in the theater!”
But when I saw his eyes, tired from the bad day and hopeful that he was finally doing something good, I nearly cried. Right there in the check-out lane at Wal-Mart with holiday shoppers all around me, I wanted to burst into tears for Aaron and for me. For Aaron, because I fully know that he can’t repair his broken turn signal in time to avoid that wrong turn. And for me, because I love him and I want to “fix” him, but I really can’t.
I turned away quickly and finished paying. Aaron helped gather up the bags out of the cart and we walked to the van, happy that the rain had stopped. When we got home, another storm was coming. Aaron was concerned about the lightning while he was on his computer, so he wanted me to be sure and tell him if he needed to shut the computer off.
“Mom,” he instructed, “come up and tell me, or call to me from downstairs, OK?”
He waited for me to respond.
“I’m giving you two decisions,” he finished.
I always smile at how he says that…two decisions instead of two choices.
But I thought of how true his saying was at that time. I did have two decisions regarding more than lightning and his computer. I also had two decisions about that turn signal issue of Aaron’s. I could be angry and berate him, or I could be loving and instructive at the same time. The decision is mine to make, despite how difficult it sometimes is. It’s easier to lash out at Aaron, honestly, but harder to be loving and patient with instruction thrown in. Yet the first decision only brings more anger and hurt. The second decision, hopefully, helps to fix Aaron’s hurting heart and show him a better way to handle his anger.
Back to my van’s turn signal – Gary was able to pick up the correct part and repair it that evening. Aaron was beside him the entire time, at one point using that moment to show Gary some scrapes on his legs. Aaron is so oblivious about how he looks in public, and at times it’s really funny.
But at other times, like the theater incident, it’s anything BUT funny. How we wish that we could install the part that would make Aaron’s turn signal work correctly and avoid all the damage that’s done when it doesn’t!
How many times do I wish I could paste a sign on Aaron’s back that explains his behaviors?!
I can’t, though. We just keep driving down this road with Aaron, trusting that some people understand and not worrying about the ones who don’t. Easier said than done! But God does give grace and He gives us wisdom to make that right decision…and He redirects us when we don’t!
Aaron’s turns aren’t easy when his signal’s messed up, but we’re there to repair the damage and pray it works better at the next turn.
And sometimes hang on for dear life!