Ben colored this picture of a girl reading a book on his online coloring app.
It’s a hot summer evening in Florida. It’s the first non-rainy day in over a week, so my husband hurries home from work to mow the lawn. I’ll do work all over the house, but if you know me well, you know that I don’t do lawns. On this particular evening, I clear the dinner dishes away and settle down in my armchair to read. Ben sidles over with his Ipad and snuggles next to me, as he loves to do. I give him a side hug/squeeze and he cuddles closer. At eight years old he’s getting almost too big to fit next to me in the armchair, and we joke about this fact almost daily.
The lawnmower rumbles in the background. Ben instinctively begins streaming music on his radio to muffle the sound and returns to his coloring app. He’s working on a present for his Papa who he will visit soon. He’s concentrating on his work and though the music relaxes him, he reminds me not to sing along. My singing tickles his back. After awhile, the mowing sound stops and we hear a sudden squeak from next door. I recognize it as the sound of someone cranking the spigot of the garden hose. Ben instinctively yelps, and I suggest he get his noise cancelling headsets. He jumps up, puts them on, and returns to his work. A while later, he asks me if the noise has stopped, and I tell him that it has. He takes off the headsets but keeps them close by. He’s finished his picture now and shows it to me proudly. I assure him that his Papa will love it.
Ben moves on to his K’Nex, which are a type of building set with various plastic parts that can be assembled to create as many things as a person’s imagination will allow. Tonight Ben assembles his own fidget device. He now has three fidget spinners (one black, one blue, and one glow-in-the dark), along with a fidget cube. In his upstairs playroom he has a huge assortment of squishy balls and items that were his fidgets long before the spinner craze took the world by storm. Ben puts two K’Nex sticks together and joins them with a middle piece. He flips the piece back and forth in his hand. “This is my fidget calmer,” he tells me. “It makes me feel calm. I can use it when I’m getting too excited, like I’ll feel when I see my Nana and Papa after the airplane.” “Here, try it,” he tells me. “Does it make you feel calm?” he asks. I start spinning it in my hand, but then he redirects me to try it differently. I try it his way, and the rhythmic motions are surprisingly soothing. “Yes,” I tell him, “It does make me feel calm.” He then proceeds to make four more fidget calmers, in sizes ranging from small to x-large. He hands the x-large to his Dad to try as he comes in from his mowing.
I used to spend a lot of time and energy worrying about whether my kid would be able to function in this world. Through his early years, I was his anchor, who helped calm the storm of his meltdown. I had to be the strong one- I had to give him the words to help him cope. But now, at eight, he is showing me that he is becoming more and more capable of his own self-regulation. He is listening to cues within his own body and using the tools to help himself cope. He’s even anticipating his own needs and finding solutions to future problems, as he did when he created the fidget calmer for our upcoming trip.
Ben snuggles next to me again on the armchair, flipping his fidget calmer while I return to my book. “When I was born, did you know I was on the spectrum?” he asks. When he asks me questions that seem out of the blue, I’ve learned that they are never as random as they may seem at first glance. Still, I usually need a moment to come up with my response. “No, I didn’t find out that you were on the spectrum until you were four years old,” I tell him. “But what I did know when you were born was that I love you, and I love you now more than ever.” I try to push the conversation forward to tell him more about what it means to be on the spectrum (right now- he thinks he’s on the spectrum because his back tickles when I sing). I want to tell him how his autism may bring challenges, but it brings him strengths him too. I want to tell him about the awesome community of people who are also on the spectrum and will be a great support to him in the years to come, but, for now, he is done with the conversation. His question has been answered, and for today that is enough. I let the conversation go, because I learned years ago that it’s best to follow his lead in these matters. It may be days, weeks, or months, but he’ll ask another question at some future time, and our conversation about the spectrum will begin anew. And so, we sit in comfortable silence in our cool living room, cuddled under a fuzzy blanket, even though it’s a hot summer evening in Florida.