A trip to Disney Land–what could be a better gift for your small child? Certainly Parent-of-the-Year awards were likely–if not for originality at least the East German judge would most likely hold up a “7.8” for enthusiasm.
My wife and I had been giggling to ourselves for over a month as we prepared for the look on our four year-old’s face when we pulled into the parking lot. We knew he’d see Mickey Mouse on some billboard and it would be magic time.
Aidan didn’t see a mouse; he smelled a rat. As my wife unpacked the video camera during a supposed routine morning drive while in Los Angeles visiting friends, he looked suspiciously at her. It was third day of our visit to the coast and both kids were pretty numb after going in and out of seat belts in various cars, airplanes and strollers.
We watch the video now, 13 years later and laugh at his puzzled expression.
He’d had that same furrowed brow since birth–the “What the hell is going on?” look. We stopped recording when he began to howl in protest.
“I didn’t know we were going here! Why didn’t you tell me! You should have told me!”
My wife and daughter went into the park and an hour later we joined them–after some decompression techniques that my wife uses on me–generally involving food and promises of an emergency exit if needed. And five years later, after our son was diagnosed with Asperger’s Syndrome, I learned that the traits are often inherited through us bribe-able dads.
At the end of the day (above), we weren’t feeling magical. Abby and I were exhausted and Aidan was still trying to figure out why this schedule-change had occurred.
Early in our marriage, Patrice discovered that her relatively calm husband got cranky with extra stops. Somewhere in the middle of the scheduled Target, dry cleaners and post office, she would suggest that we also grab some Tylenol at Walgreens. My stomach tightened, my throat went dry and my tell-tale tone gave me away as I gripped the driver’s wheel and tried to play the supportive husband, “Okay,” I lamely sputtered.
“What? You don’t want to?”
“No, it’s not that…It’s just that…you didn’t…say we…were…” Halfway out of my mouth, I was furiously editing my words to not come across as silly as I most definitely did–particularly since we had nothing else to do that day. Those first few years of our marriage we had some afternoons that spun in bad directions, swerving off the road and crashing into a billboard welcoming you to Awkward Silenceville.
But then my much-more intelligent wife learned the same trick we’d use on the boy years later.
“I’d like to stop at Walgreens for some Tylenol,” she offered gently–probably needing the pills for this very conversation. “So if you want, I can drop you off at home first.”
Suddenly I’m in control. Suddenly I am the benevolent one.
“No. It’s fine. We can stop,” I’d chuckle magnanimously. “We’ve got all kinds of time.”
Now that technique works so well with me, that I even use it on myself.
For years past the Mickey Incident, we’d already tried various therapists to explain his behavior when a nutritionist we were consulting for Aidan’s limited diet of peanut butter and…peanut butter suggested that he might be on the autistic spectrum.
Sure enough, within 20 minutes of the consult, the psychologist revealed a library of manuals. It was like I could finally operate that universal remote control–I just needed to find that scrap of paper that had the 197 codes for your VCR, TV, tuner and cable box.
I’m afraid I even said, once the shock of the “special education” gauntlet was thrown, “Oh good. I thought he was just being kind of a jerk.”
Isn’t that terrible? But I honestly couldn’t figure out why the little guy couldn’t roll with the punches a little more. I mean, it’s Disney Land for crying out loud! Why should ketchup be considered exotic? Why is there a need to correct all of us if we don’t quote a movie exactly right? One line I knew I had right, that fit the bill perfectly for Aidan, was from Stripes : “Lighten up, Francis.”
The identification of Asperger’s turned the tide–that and an outstanding therapist. The next trip to the Magic Kingdom was a thing of beauty–with a schedule so organized yet flexible for the rest of us that the Franklin Planner folks are threatening to sue.
The benefits continued at home. Instead of “Aidan! Clean your room!” leading to an explosive argument, generally starting with, “You didn’t tell me…” it turned into…
“In ten minutes…”
“I’m going to ask you to clean your room.”
Usually in ten minutes, even with a gentle nudge, he’d be sort-of-cleaning. (He’s still a teenage boy after all so a wet towel moved from the middle of the floor to behind the door must count for something–even for the East German judge.)
Just like Walgreens. The illusion of control.
One terrible birthday a few years ago we’d ignored the formula. The day was approaching and we’d taken as apathy his noncommittal shrugs when we asked if he wanted anyone over for his party. Nearing the afternoon of his big day he asked, “So who’s coming over?” And instead of intelligently lying, we told him the truth: “Nobody. You never gave us any names.”
Dumb. It may have felt good and spiteful at the moment, but it was out-of-formula.
“But we always have people over for my birthday!”
Damage-control was in full-swing and the advantage of having fifteen family members in the tri-county area proved effective once again. Within two hours we had a houseful. It was enabling, but not him. Patrice’s large family was enabling two parents who had fallen off the wagon. In Aidan’s brain, after all, the “always” birthday-guest-list is more reliable than our current weather patterns.
This September, Aidan starts his senior year, and even with the same furrowed-brow, the change that’s come upon him since the chaos of middle school hallways is stunning to behold by all friends, relatives and postmen.
He even takes school somewhat seriously–much improved from when he tossed his homework out of the school bus window, nearly hitting Ms. Carson, his second-grade teacher. (The paper was wrinkled after all, so why keep it?)
And he’s found his home in the drama club, acting sometimes but always involved-particularly behind-the-scenes in the structured frenzy of stage-management. (In my many years as a high school teacher with students on the spectrum, I noticed how often they would go into engineering or computers–and a well-organized drama calendar can be very similar.) He hasn’t missed a rehearsal in two years, since the prospect is as alien as a sudden trip to to an Anaheim parking lot to see an over-sized rodent.
[And, of course, Aidan approved this message!]