Yesterday was an easy Saturday, when I had the luxury of running a few errands on my own. Normally, I enjoy these rare events when I can get out and knock a few things off my to-do list. But today was different. I just couldn’t slow down my racing mind as I drove around town. Like a car radio that was stuck in “Seek” mode, I kept changing stations from one worry to another.
<click> To thoughts about one of my daughters, whose perseverations and OCD-like anxiety have increased dramatically the past few months. On the short, ten-minute drive to her tumbling class last week, she asked Katie over and over and over again, “Are we going to be late? I can’t be late. Please hurry up, Mom, I don’t want to be late. My friends won’t like me if I’m late.” (Katie left ten minutes early to stave off these worries—but to no avail.)
<click> To thoughts about another son, who can’t control himself when a cascade of negative emotions comes over him. The slightest word of correction will send him into a rage, as will the smallest disappointment or denial of a preferred activity. I have worked and worked with him, trying to teach him “cooling thoughts” and self-calming activities, but none of it helped. Now we have to turn to medication to help regulate his emotions.
<click> To thoughts about how to convince a glacier’s-paced school system to give my son the help he needs in social and pragmatic language skills. He’s a whiz at simple mathematics and spelling, but he doesn’t always get nonverbal cues, and he can have a hard time expressing himself clearly. The inferential thinking involved in reading comprehension and word problems is a challenge for him, but his teachers are reluctant to do more, since his other skills are buoying up his grades. “He’s not failing, so what’s the problem?”
<click> To thoughts about the son who can spend hours at a time in his room watching his favorite YouTube personalities talk about video games. His self-isolation is giving him a short temper with his siblings and keeping him from the few friends he has. But it’s like pulling teeth to get him to interact.
<click> To thoughts about finances and all the visits to therapists, psychiatrists, counselors, and doctors for everyone. And then there’s the private, Aspergers-only school our two oldest ones attend—and which at least one more will likely end up in.
<click> To thoughts about our daughter the hoarder and what it’s going to take to get her to part with some of the things she has collected—or at least organize her bedroom so that we can see the carpet. And to thoughts about what makes her so anxious that she feels such a deep need for all these toys. For a recent overnight trip, she stuffed more than twenty of her plush Pokémon figures into a backpack just to keep them by her side. They never saw the light of day, but she refused to be parted from them. “They help keep me calm.”
By the time I had finished my run and was pulling into our neighborhood, I was feeling pretty depressed. So many unanswered questions. So many problems needing to be solved. So many signs pointing to the challenges my kids have yet to face. (Not to mention, my errands were a bust. No store I visited seemed to have anything I was looking for.)
This is what it can be like living with autism and Aspergers—especially in a world that reduces things and people down into their various components. You wind up seeing everything in terms of the goal, the challenge, the problem, the next “thing” that needs to be addressed. With so many kids on the spectrum, Katie and I have to juggle a variety of diagnoses and an even wider array of manifestations of them. So it’s easy to focus on the problems and miss out on the bigger picture.
It took me a while to come back down to earth and remember that my kids are more than the conglomeration of their problems. It helped a lot when, as I walked through the front door, our youngest popped up off the sofa and ran to me, his face beaming with delight. “Daddy! You came home! I missed you so much!” Then his brother, four years older, came down from his bedroom and shouted, “Yay! Daddy’s home!” and then began jumping up and down with great gusto and doing his signature spinning headstand on the sofa.
None of the challenges went away, of course. They are all very real and still demand my attention. But none of them can overshadow the innocence that these kids have. Even my oldest two, for all their adolescence, have a childlikeness about them that melts my heart. They all have their melt downs and tantrums, but they still have that wide-eyed wonder and openness that tells me there’s still loads of hope. It’s when they shut out the world—or shut me or Katie out—that I need to be concerned.
I suppose the fact that I see my kids in such a reductive way every now and then is, I suppose, to be expected. I’m just glad that today my kids helped me move beyond this partial vision so that I could see with my heart and not rely on my racing mind.
The next time I’m out on my own, I’ll listen to NPR.