Tuesday, March 31, 2009

The best things come...

In this blog entry I described moments in my life as a parent to a special-needs child. I got a lot of feedback from the entry so I wanted to share a related moment that was immensely fulfilling. I share this on World Autism Awareness Day in honor of my sweet boy.

I admit it. I'm one of those moms that uses the canned "mmmhmmms" and the "that's great, sweetheart"s when my kids are chattering away and I'm not quite there. It doesn't mean I don't love them, of course. It just means that I've got a lot on my mind. We've all been there.

And we've all been kids at one point, too. So we can't blame our own children when they use the same time-honored techniques to grab attention from the Distracted Parent.

"Mom. Mom. MOM. MOM. MOM!!!

My five-year-old autistic son employs these techniques as well. He learns well from observation and imitation. For example, I got him to say, "I love you" when he was about three years old. It was simply an imitation of my speech. But it was the last time I heard it from him.

He soon took a downward turn and was subsequently diagnosed with autism. It was crushing. But he continued to observe and imitate, including raising his voice to get my attention. He also formed his own technique that is more effective than any other.

I can always tell when his synapses are on overdrive because his voice changes. It's not a loud change or an obnoxious change. It's a quiet change. A breathy, mumbly, I'm-making-progress-so-listen-carefully change. His voice takes on a peculiar energy and excitement that my husband and I delight in.

He will breathlessly recount an event in great detail or describe how he is going to construct an invention (most frequently a rocket pack for his back, just like Buzz Lightyear.) This little voice grabs my attention better than any yell for Mom.

Recently we were sitting on the floor in our living room. I was tickling my youngest son and making lots of noise in the process. My autistic son sat a few feet away, staring intently at the floor. I wished I could get inside that head and hear what was going on. Whatever it was, it was all-consuming.

Amidst the squeals and giggles I heard his breathy, quiet voice. He said a few things that I didn't catch, then he looked straight at me.

"I love you, mom." Then he smiled.

I froze. His voice couldn't have been softer but I certainly heard it. It cut me to the soul and took my breath away. I left my youngest child on the carpet, momentarily forgotten. Crawling across the floor, I folded him into my arms. I couldn't hold him tightly enough.

He giggled as I squeezed him and choked back my tears. I had waited so long for this: a moment that was unprompted, un-canned, un-imitated. The fact that I had waited over two years for it made the moment all the sweeter.

Thursday, March 26, 2009

Those who help others...

A friend of mine owns a couple of horses. I was bemoaning the fact that therapeutic riding programs (for special needs children) were few and far between, expensive, and often had year-long waiting lists. She brightened and said, "He can ride my horse." I was thrilled. When I explained to my autistic son what we were going to do, he was beside himself with anticipation.

We had an unseasonably warm February day. As we drove west to the stable, the air was almost warm in the Blue Ridge mountains. We received permission from the stable owner to use her resident Shetland pony for my little guy's first riding experience. She was beautiful and brown and her name was Minnie.

My son's attention and speech increased dramatically as we groomed her. He delighted in feeding her apples, sugar cubes, and knobby carrots. He asked questions constantly but did a great job of controlling his excitement over his new experience. He asked me a question so softly that I had to bend down and ask him to repeat several times. Finally, I got it: "What's her last name?" By virtue of the owner, we dubbed her Minnie Smith. It was official.

Then came time to ride. He was stiff as I lifted him and placed him in the saddle. He kept his arms around my neck and made little nervous squeaking sounds. I peeled his arms away and stepped back a bit. He grinned from ear to ear as she shifted around.

We led the pony partway up the side of a nearby mountain (a relative term in the Blue Ridge) and stopped at a bench someone had placed at a rise. My son puttered through the dead, dry grass and leafless trees as we basked in the sun. He was at such peace in nature and with an animal nearby.

We returned to the stable and headed home. As we drove, my friend confided in me that she had been experiencing an emotionally difficult time. This was her first foray out of the house in a week. I was dismayed that I was unaware of her struggles. But when she turned to smile at me, I saw the same joy reflected in her face as I had seen in my son's. The pony, the sunshine, and the camraderie all made for a wonderful day.