Life should be fun. What we eat, what we do for a living, and how we spend the rest of our time should be enjoyable and as stress-free as is possible. This means we have to approach taking care of ourselves as a big picture thing, not just worrying about if our pants fit or if we’re having high-fructose corn syrup in our salad dressing. Creating happy memories is the point, so I’m sharing some of my feelings on autism and childhood memories.
Big picture includes being able to look back on your life and find a lot of high points – things you did that you enjoy, things with your family, your friends, on your own. It means not only looking out for ourselves but for our kids, and that’s something parents do every single minute of our lives. We worry about our kids more than we think about ourselves and we only want the best. To each of us, our children are the best kids on the planet — the smartest, the funniest, the cleverest – and we want to do everything we can to help them have the best lives possible.
When your child has a medical issue or a special need, it can make our goals just a little harder. It means we have to think not just big picture, but how to get through each day. On the bad days, we’re looking at how to get them safely through each minute. When your child has autism spectrum disorder (ASD), this is no different. Kids with autism frequently are escape artists, runners drawn to water, with a very increased risk of drowning or death by exposure. Pretty sobering stats out there and the numbers aren’t getting any better.
My little dude with autism is now 13. I don’t talk about his autism too personally, as I believe in respecting his privacy but sometimes, I really think there are things we learn along the way that we need to share, things that will help parents going through it now or parents who interact with those families. Little Dude is no longer “little” in theory, but that doesn’t mean he doesn’t want to have the same memories and experiences of other kids that don’t have autism. He got through the first eight-nine years of his life with severe sensory processing disorders that prohibited him from the same pleasures that most young kids have. Amusement parks, birthday parties, movie theaters, state fairs, toy stores, visiting the doctor, going through the drive-thru or even greeting mom’s friend in the safety of their own livingroom – they’re all minefields ,explosions waiting to happen. It’s hard to explain to someone who hasn’t been there, but for years, autism can hold you and/or your family hostage. It means that the whole family may not be seen in public together for years, and that the child himself can’t do what others his age can do. That list of things I mention? None of those things may be an actual reality for that child or his family until he or she is old enough and equipped with the proper coping mechanisms to be able to handle it.
For us, it meant that we took things in very small doses. We had to use accommodations, leave early or skip entirely. It meant hearing him say, just in recent months, that he remembers not being able to attend a field trip or visit the zoo with other kids because he couldn’t stand the lights or sounds (most of which wouldn’t bother a normally developing child) or because he knew he was being teased but couldn’t verbalize it at the time in order to make it stop. He remembers being excited about an event, only to begin it and find out he couldn’t handle it. Autism and childhood memories aren’t mutually exclusive so we want to be sure he’s left with good ones.
For us, it meant that we took things in very small doses. We had to use accommodations, leave early or skip entirely. It meant hearing him say, just in the last few months, that he remembers not being able to attend a field trip or visit the zoo with other kids because he couldn’t stand the lights or sounds (most of which wouldn’t bother a normally developing child) or because he knew he was being teased but couldn’t verbalize it at the time in order to make it stop. He remembers being excited about an event, only to begin it and find out he couldn’t handle it.
Now that he’s 13 though, he has a lot more skills to cope and get through. He can tolerate more or just get through it for longer periods of time, which means that he may go to an event where it’s focused a little more on the younger-aged set and have a blast, laughing and enjoying it as he would have five or six years ago. Those games he hated at age ten? He’ll play them now. He’s, for all intents and purposes, “normal” in the eyes of others and we are SO very proud of him. Words can’t tell you how amazed we are, on a daily basis, with how hard he’s worked and what an amazing young man he is today.
He’ll also still watch a movie that’s age-appropriate and play a mean game of Monopoly, beating the pants off of all of us, with a vocabulary far beyond his years, surprising adults and kids alike. Yet when you’ve got a 13 year old boy getting onto a ride for much younger kids, sometimes you get The Stare. He may not see it – or he might – but try as I might, I still see it sometimes. I see people wondering why I get so excited that he’ll be able to meet a cartoon character, when they have no idea that it’s because he wouldn’t do that when he was “the right age.” So yeah, it’s frequently about me and my reaction, my excitement and me wanting him to do those things he couldn’t do when he was that “right” age. I want those memories for him. And of him.
What I’m trying to say is this: when you’re out and about and you see someone’s kid doing something that may not seem age-appropriate, refrain from judging. You just don’t know the history or the reasoning and it’s really not something that you need to be worried about. That child may just be reliving a childhood moment in a more positive light, doing something for the first time, or doing something for the last time. You don’t know a child’s illness history, the hours spent in a hospital bed getting treatment or in a therapist’s office getting behavioral help. What may just seem like an older kid getting in the way may be a milestone for that kid and his or her family. And that’s a pretty big deal.
Maturity is over-rated; kids only get to be kids once and before you know it, they’re adults who are being judged on everything in the public eye. Let’s let kids have as much time to be kids, even if they look older. We all benefit from those smiles and giggles and those newly-formed memories.
Autism and childhood memories — it’s something that matters now for the parents and at some point, for most kids. Recreating childhood deserves help, not judgment.