Thursday, November 6, 2014

Letting Go

When your child is initially diagnosed with ASD, one of the most difficult issues that you deal with is letting go of expectations. Expectations of parenting through the "typical" childhood experiences and issues. Dads who dream of future athletes, moms who dream of dancers and make-up and shopping...the fantasies that enchant and bewitch us when we find that we are about to become parents.

When Anderson was about two years old--when I knew that he was on the spectrum and nobody else did--I started the process of grieving these expectations. Anyone will tell you that the first part of this experience is the denial. For me, it wasn't so much denial as trying to force Anderson to be "normal". This included pleading with him to stop flapping his hands, endless modeling of how to correctly play with toy cars, begging him to pay attention to things that typical kids notice and enjoy. I remember taking the kids to a birthday party at an inflatables playspace and fighting back tears as he cried, screamed, kicked, and eventually settled into a routine of pacing around the bounce houses over and over.  The noise of the fans and the size of the inflatables was just too much for him. I watched Amelia and the rest of the party-goers enjoying themselves and the hole that had just begun to form in my heart--way down deep in the most tender space that is reserved for your children--grew larger. More painful. My boy wasn't going to enjoy the typical childhood activities. It hurt.

Since that time, we've experienced similar issues with places like swimming pools, concert halls, and (of course) elevators.  Over time, the feeling of hurt and, unfortunately but admittedly, disappointment have faded. But not only have they disappeared, they've been replaced with something different. A realization that is so powerful and important that I wish all parents could experience it.  When we go through something like an ASD diagnosis, we feel that because our children don't enjoy typical childhood things, they won't experience the true, unadulterated joy that comes with being a kid. That carefree uninhibited feeling that dissipates as we near adulthood and never returns.  The reality is (at least in my case), Anderson probably experiences the world in a MORE carefree and uninhibited way than most children.  He is completely unaware of others' expectations of him and therefore their opinions of him. He experiences TRUE joy in things like just being outside, pretending to do yard work, or hiking, or watching elevators. He wears his heart and emotions on his sleeve, and therefore his excitement over things that he loves is literally almost tangible. In a nutshell, he is who he is. What you see is what you get. And what you get is pretty damn awesome.

On Tuesday, I decided to take the kids on a spur-of-the-moment trip to the zoo. Just us three. We went to the Louisville Zoo because the drive is shorter and the zoo is smaller and manageable.  We got there right as the gates opened, and the day couldn't have been more perfect. Cool temperatures and overcast skies kept crowds away, and we experienced the zoo without having to wait or deal with herds of people.  Amelia is an animal-lover in the truest sense of the word--she can't stand babies or Barbies or princesses, but show her a Florida Panther and she gets all googly-eyed. She and I spent hours that day staring at lions and giraffes, elephants and gorillas and tigers.  Anderson spent hours that day walking the grounds of the zoo. He maybe actually looked at three animals the entire day, and spent the rest of his time climbing and walking rock walls, pacing back and forth in front of fences. He had free rein of the area because without a crowd, he could get a good distance away from me and I could still see him and not worry about someone trying to grab him.  I couldn't help but think back to my earlier self--the one who worried and dreaded and panicked in the earliest days of his development. That Wendy would've spent the entire day trying to force him to LOOK at the animals, persuading him to not pace in front of the fences and begging him to pay attention. I would've been so incredibly disappointed that he wasn't enjoying the animals that I would've missed how happy he was just to be outside, to be in a new environment full of fun obstacles for climbing.  On this zoo day, I felt nothing but peace and happiness, and honestly? I was proud. Proud of how far I have come, how far we have come.

The boy continues to make progress every single day. He's actually READING now with freakish accuracy. He can count past 100 and loves school. He's learning more and more how to tell us what is bothering him when he's unhappy, to use language appropriately.  In five weeks' time, he has gone from crying at the thought of getting into the pool with a swim teacher to begging him to take him out into the deeper part of the pool on a float and smiling throughout the entire lesson. The boy conquers his fears and issues on a daily basis. He's pretty amazing. I can't wait to see what the next year brings.