yesterday was one of those days that kicks my emotional arse. my three year old son has autism spectrum disorder, and there are moments, every once in a while, that knock me down and leave me sort of paralyzed with fear. i can tend to get caught in our little bubble of various therapists who offer encouragement and keep me focused on his progress (as it should be). my son recently started pre-school through the public school system- a special education pre-school for children aged 3-5 with developmental delays. he has done incredibly well as far as enjoying going, and being away from me for the first time in his life. he’s happy to go, five days a week.
yesterday when i picked up my son his teacher asked me if my son plays with toys at home. this felt like a strange question, which i replied to with a suspicious yes. she asked what toys he plays with. i replied that he plays with play doh, trucks, blocks. she frowned and said, “all of the stuff that we have here, hmmm.” and looked at her teacher’s aide with a raised eyebrow. “we have a hard time getting him to play with anything. he just doesn’t play with the toys. and he is constantly opening and closing all the doors in the classroom.” i felt an overwhelming flood of emotion over this, from shame to sadness to anger (because as my husband put it, “isn’t that exactly why he’s in special ed?”).
part of autism is having difficulty with what is considered “normal” play. my son lines things up, he takes things apart. he spends more time playing with household items (and doors) than he does with regular toys. given a toy truck he will examine it, open and close the doors repeatedly, spin the wheels over and over. after months of therapy he has begun to actually put trucks on the floor and push them around, but there is no “vroom vroom” or pretend driving. he doesn’t play like other children play. instead of wanting to watch frozen or paw patrol, he obsessively watches my workout videos. he will ask to watch them over and over, all day long. prior to exercise videos it was one specific episode of seinfeld, over and over. the only time that he speaks in sentences is when he is repeating lines from videos or shows that he watches. he doesn’t have conversations. he repeats things. he speaks in one or two word phrases. he has made incredible progress over the last year, he amazes me daily. but there are days when i am reminded that he is very different. and that fills me with worry, about how he will develop, and how others will treat him. i wonder if he will ever talk, really talk. or if he will ever become independent, and have a life where he can take care of himself and have fulfilling relationships and a career.
yesterday as i was wallowing in feeling like my child is so different that even a special ed teacher doesn’t know what to do with him, feeling like my husband and i are on an island with him, i decided to meditate. a couple of things popped into my mind. i had spent the day in my own fog of self-pity, but i recalled that as i was leaving his classroom after the teacher had made those comments, i saw another mother with a boy from my son’s class. she was walking her son up a crowded staircase, which was full of older children rushing to leave. her son was crying and refusing to move because he was upset that it was raining outside. he was dragging his feet, refusing to move. his mother looked fully exasperated as she sort of shrugged at me and let out a big sigh. later at the grocery store i heard a baby screaming, angrily. it was impossible to ignore, the type of enraged screaming that usually comes from children in doctors offices or babies with colic. as i got to the checkout line i saw that it was a little boy, maybe 2 years old, in a shopping cart screaming as his mother frantically tried to pay for her groceries. as i walked to my car i saw her slam the car door on the screaming as she let out another exasperated sigh. as with the mother in the school hallway, i gave her my most sympathetic smile.
these two mothers reminded me that every mother deals with enormous challenges. every child has moments of being difficult, and not acting as we all would like them to. every child has tantrums and acts out. every mother feels like they are failing in some way or another. what i was too caught up in my own head to notice was that they were right there in front of me, looking to me for acknowledgement and sympathy, which i gave without a thought because of course i understand what that feels like. even when we feel alone, we aren’t. the motherhood is large, and sympathy is all around us.