|Ben inspecting the tomato plants in Nana and Papa's garden.|
I try not to limit my son based on my perceptions of what he can and cannot handle, but…despite my best efforts…I do. More often than I would care to admit.
And...time and again...my kid proves me wrong, exceeding my expectations of his capabilities.
As parents it’s only natural to expose our children to our personal areas of interest.
Sports fans take their children to baseball games. Athletic parents take their kids rock climbing and kayaking. Nature lovers take their kids…well…into nature.
My husband and I are not what you would call athletes or nature lovers. My husband is a computer whiz, so he is passing on his love of technology to Ben. And me, well, I’m sharing my love of books and reading. I’m delighted that he is learning to read independently and sees himself as a writer, proudly placing the books he has written alongside those by his favorite authors.
Luckily, our kid also has the opportunity to learn from family members with a variety of interests and talents, many that our different from ours.
During the past month, Ben and I have spent our summer vacation visiting my childhood home up north. As a teacher, I’m fortunate that we have time to spend a few weeks of our summer with family. Since we live half a country away, I count myself blessed to have this time to reconnect with family.
So much of our time this summer was spent out in nature.
Keep in mind, I am not a nature girl.
I have a brown thumb, I hate the summer heat, and I almost always get eaten alive by mosquitoes. My husband, if possible, hates the outdoors even more than I do.
This summer, however, we discovered something surprising.
He walked barefoot through the grass any time he could.
He begged to go on walks through the woods.
My Dad (Ben's Papa) took the family camping, where Ben fished by the pond and stayed up late roasting marshmallows by the fire and catching fireflies in a jar. He found dead bugs to add to his collection.
And Ben’s Nana (my mother) and Granny (my grandmother) taught him about flowers and plants.
Ben learned to recognize flowers by their name, such as lavender and Queen Anne’s lace. He’s learned when he can pick a flower and when to leave it for others to enjoy.
His love of touch and smell combined each time he gently stroked a flower and inhaled its scent.
In fact, he loves flowers so much, that heaven forbid you casually toss one onto the ground. I did this once, and he cried as if he’d lost a dear friend and searched until he found it again.
Nana took Ben on long walks that became treasure hunts, where he found various flowers, cicada shells (those are insects, by the way), walnuts, acorns, and rocks of every shape and size.
And, most of all, he loved the garden.
He loved it so much that he started doing something surprising.
He started eating vegetables.
Like so many autistic children, Ben is a picky eater. Picky as in if his grilled cheese sandwich has a pickle on top of it at a restaurant, he won’t eat the sandwich, even if the offending pickle has been removed. Picky as in he will only eat fruits if they are the kind that come in the squeeze pouch, and then only if they are the Mott's apple cinnamon flavor.
Forget about vegetables.
He refused to acknowledge the existence of vegetables.
He wanted them nowhere near his plate.
It wasn't as if we didn't try.
My husband and I did our best to provide a vegetable option at each meal.
We tried to avoid making mealtime into a battle. I knew better than to force veggies down his throat, because I had read enough parenting books to know that there are no winners in the food wars.
But still, we would encourage him to at least try a bite of veggie. And so it was that he would begrudgingly eat one tiny kernel of corn, which would instantly produce the gag reflex. Or he would eat one small bit of mashed potatoes, just to placate us.
Then, if I asked if he liked it, he'd answer, “A little bit,” which is his polite code for “Not really, and don’t you dare make me eat any more.”
I had heard that kids will sometimes eat vegetables if they come out of their own garden, but I always thought to myself, “Not my kid. You don’t know my kid.”
Boy, was I wrong.
To Ben, the garden is a sensory delight.
My parents have a small one on the side of their house, where they grow a variety of veggies and herbs. My grandmother has one in her backyard. He visited both on a regular basis.
Whenever Ben made his way outdoors (which was often), he would invariably stop by the garden.
He had his own little ritual that he had developed after days of watching the plants. He visited them as if they are old friends, checking in on them, lovingly touching them and picking small pieces to carry with him like a lucky charm.
He began his visit to the garden with the chives. I would never have dreamed of offering him a chive, but yet he gobbled them up like candy. He plucked one long strand, smelling it first and then chomped it bite by bite. When he got to the end of his piece, he would stuff the remaining clump into his mouth and chew it with gusto.
Next, he inspected the cherry tomato plants, daily monitoring the progress of each tomato as it changed each day from green to yellow to an orangish-red. At first, he was impatient to pick them before they were ready, but he learned to recognize the ripe ones on the vine and took great enjoyment in plucking them, later counting the pile to see how many he has gathered.
He would peek on the pepper plant, with the pepper at the bottom slowly becoming more and more red. He knew that sometime soon it would be ready.
His final stop was the lemon balm plant. He carefully chose one leaf to pluck, immediately rubbing it between his fingers as Nana taught him to. He inhaled deeply, taking in its scent.
Before entering the house, he would stop by the front porch, where he pinched off a piece of the parsley plant that grew in a pot, and, amazingly, he would eat that too. He plucked every single leaf, until the parsley plant was also nothing but green shoots.
Sometimes, Nana would let him water the plants. During those times, his face would screw up in concentration as he struggled to carry the heavy pitcher across the yard and to the garden. He learned to give the plants just the right amount of water and to sprinkle it evenly along the soil.
When he visited my grandmother’s house, the first thing he wanted to do was run to her garden. Then, he walked up and down each row, inspecting the crops with his arms behind his back. Then, he would ask permission to pluck her zucchini, squash, and peppers. While we were staying at Granny’s house, he asked for a bite of yellow squash, and he ate a slice raw, without gagging or complaint.
Ben is still a picky eater. He will still refuse a grilled cheese sandwich if someone puts a pickle on it.
But, this summer, he reminded me, yet again, to never, ever, stop believing in what he can do.
And, yes, this brown-thumbed Momma may just have to let him grow a garden of his own when we get back home to Florida. Even if it’s the kind that grows in pots on the windowsill.