Sunday, November 30, 2014

Growing Up

Ben is focused intently on assembling his magnetic construction while lots of games go on around him on Thanksgiving day.  
Another Thanksgiving has come and gone.  For most of us, Thanksgiving is a time to reconnect with family and to reflect on the things that we are thankful for in our lives.  Since I live half a country away from most of my family, I don’t get to see them very often.  Twice a year we fly up to visit them, once for Thanksgiving and then once in the summer.  I am grateful for this time with my family, even though it passes by too quickly.
My husband and I have lived in Florida for 13 years now, but we grew up in Indiana.  In many ways, going back to Indiana feels like opening a time capsule.  As I look out the car window at the farmlands and the houses that flash by, it feels as if time stood still.   So many things around me look just as they did when I was a little girl.
 In other way, however, traveling back home makes me realize that time is
speeding by way too fast.
When I travel back to Indiana, I slow down long enough to realize something that I don’t always notice in my daily rush back home in Florida. 
My little boy is growing up.
It’s the little things that get me the most. 
Like the way he wears a backpack now at the airport and walks next to me, rather than riding in a stroller.  Come to think of it, I can’t remember the last time he rode in his stroller.
 Or the fact that he no longer counts as a small child when boarding the airplane, which means we can no longer board early.  And, rather than throw a fit about it, he waited calmly in line with the others because he is a “big boy”. 
Or the way he calls me Mom now, instead of Mommy. 
Or the way he watches out for me, like when he reached out to touch my arm to make sure I was okay when I got sent back to Start during a family game of Sorry.   
And let’s not forget that he washes his own hair.  In the shower.  By himself.
            Ben loves seeing his family, but big family gatherings are still hard for him, and Thanksgiving was the biggest get together of the trip.   The day was loaded with potential sensory triggers. 
A house that he’d never been to before filled with people he only sees a couple of times a year.  A meal filled with food he barely tolerates, and one food he loves (if prepared the way he likes).  Lots of action happening all at once, in a closely confined space.  All of these things could spell sensory overload.  Add this to the fact that there would be several young cousins and a couple dogs (which he’s so-so about) mingling about, and relatives who would be excited and clamoring to see him.
            Ben handled the day on his terms.  He excitedly staked a claim at the table closest to the door as soon as we arrived at the house.  Soon after, the meal was served, and, luckily his favorite food (turkey) was to his liking, and he ate a ton.  He even made polite “small talk” with the adults around him. 
            “Do you like the mashed potatoes?” my uncle asked.
            “A little bit,” he answered (even though he hadn’t eaten a bite).
            “So, what grade are you in?” my cousin asked him.
            “Who’s your teacher?”        
            “Mrs. H.”
            “Do you have any friends?”
            He answered everyone’s questions, and even though his answers were one word, he kept the conversation going.  He didn’t let it lag.
            After the meal, the family members congregated in the living room, visiting and catching up.  A few cousins started a card game at a nearby table.  As the noise level rose in the house, Ben’s activity level rose to match.  The louder the noise level of the room, the louder he became.  His facial expressions became more pronounced, his hand waving wilder, and his body movements more manic.  However, when he started to become overwhelmed, he pulled himself into a quiet room by himself to draw pictures and find his calm again. 
            Only once did he really lose control that Thanksgiving day.  My Dad and I saw it coming.  My aunt had pulled out a magnetic building set for him to play with.  It was the perfect toy for him and it captivated him for a long time.  He sat at the table, quietly concentrating on attaching the pieces together into an intricate array of shapes and designs.  It was when he tried to the design 3 dimensional that the frustration set in.  As he started stacking the sticks higher and higher, his elaborate construction collapsed around him.   The first time he merely gasped in exasperation.  The second time, as it fell, he tore his creation apart in frustration.  At that point, I calmly suggested that it might be time to try something new, but he was having none of it.  He had a vision in his mind of how this thing should look, and he was going to see it through.  I knew that continuing with this project could only spell disaster, but I also knew that removing him from the room now would only cause a huge scene.  I also knew that he needed to learn to deal with frustration, so I let him go.  For about five minutes all seemed well.  He stacked the sticks higher and higher.  And then, the fateful moment came.  One stick too many, and the whole structure crumpled under the weight.  Ben was undone.  My Dad and I worked to guide him out of the living room so that he could have a moment to regain his composure in privacy, but it was no small feat pulling him away from his toy.  After several moments of loud, angry tears (and one Oreo cookie dessert later), all was right in the world again.
            But, this story isn’t about Ben melting down.  The wonderful part of this was my family’s reaction to this tearful scene.  Not one of them gave me a sideways glance.  No one lectured me on my parenting skills or called Ben a spoiled brat.  Instead, they allowed Ben the dignity and space to regain his composure again.  Not long after, everyone was gathering their coats and saying goodbye.  We had to wait until a few of our relatives went ahead since our car was parked behind.  Again, Ben started to become agitated, but no one said anything.  Everyone understood.  Ben was able to give hugs and say goodbyes, and hold the memory of a good day where he visited family, ate turkey, and had yummy desserts.
            Most of my relatives only get to see Ben twice a year at Thanksgiving and at the 4th of July.  I know that the majority of their memories of him come from these family gatherings, which, due to the sensory overload and heavy social expectations, are not always his best moments.  Yet still, they complimented me on the growth that Ben has made in his conversations, his language abilities, and his overall maturity.  They recognized the growth he had made and made an effort to get to know him on his terms. 
It is human nature to fear what we do not understand, but my family has made an effort to understand Ben’s autism.  They have shown him nothing but love and support.   I am grateful for this, but I hope for more.  I hope that one day, society will have a better understanding of autism.  As more people become educated and aware, whether it’s because of a loved one like Ben or because of someone they have met along the way, autism will seem a lot less scary.   I hope that more people will learn to love and accept those around them and learn give others the benefit of the doubt when they see someone struggling or having a hard time.  A little compassion goes a long way.

Ben still has a lot of growing up to do, but the good news is that he has a tribe rallied around him.  They may not live next door, but they have his back every time.

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