Monday, January 7, 2013

What Do I Treasure About My Child? (A Dad's Answer)

Imagine what it would be like to be completely happy with who you are. Sprinkle in a child's innocence. You know nothing about people lying, or having any malicious intent. Each stranger represents a fun new friend you simply have not met yet. Now, infuse a certainty that everything you do is hilarious. Even if people do not laugh at what you do, your smile and laugh are infectious, and they eventually cannot help themselves.

A school counselor once commented about my son, Nate, that he had never seen someone who had a history of hitting and biting that was so loved by his teachers and classmates. Nate came to us with certain limitations. He struggles to communicate, with only a few words that most people would understand. He is less coordinated than your average kid, and has trouble focusing on anything for more than a few seconds. These forces combine to make teaching proper behavior and etiquette far more difficult. This can lead to embarrassing moments like pants getting pulled down in public, or sporting a Spider-Man costume to dinner. It can also lead to moments of unexpected joy.

I grew up with a capacity for cruel jokes about people with special needs. I never tormented anyone, but I am not proud of what I would say to my friends. I matured, but never truly outgrew the belief that "those people" were without redeeming qualities. They were gross. They were different. They were below me.

Nate changed all that. A cynic would say, "He's your kid. You have to love him." Parents know it does not always work that way. Various studies have indicated the divorce rate for parents of special needs children is significantly higher than parents of typically developing kids. The parent/child bond does not always form. It can become suffocating, and lead people to bail out. That was not the case with Nate.

Perhaps, it helped that our first child screamed and cried for the first four months of his life. We had seen tough, and weathered it. Nate was born content. He was happy to be held, happy to be on the ground. He was happy. Oh, and that laugh.

People are powerless against it. He laughs when he gets hurt. He laughs when other people get hurt. He laughs at the dog. He laughs at the cat. I can be seeing red after he has made a massive mess, and be smiling seconds later against my will.

There was a seminal moment for me when Nate was around three. He had been in various types of therapy for a while, and it was becoming clear this was not going to just get better. I let myself imagine what life might have been like for me, for my wife, for my older son, if Nate had never been born. There was no judgment in my heart. I just found myself asking my soul a question. The answer surprised me. The life I was picturing was less colorful, less enjoyable, less inspiring. I felt bad that my older son was not going to have a typical brother, but I also learned things about how amazing of an older brother he was and what a kind heart he had because of how he interacted with Nate. It changed what I thought about him, and has contributed directly to a stronger relationship between him and me. I can be an intense personality, and Nate is always there to break the tension. Sure, he is often a source of stress and frustration, but he has also relieved the rest of us of ours. Our family would not work without Nate.

That realization pervaded our household over time. We each made peace with Nate's limits in our own way, and in our own time. I was proud, and relieved, to find I had the ability to sincerely love the family I had. My wife has used her experience to launch a new career outlet, advocating and educating about areas that relate to special needs children. My oldest son loves his little brother, but has no awareness of how much character he is building through the process. He may be my age before he truly realizes how Nate has helped him to be a better person.

Nate will not always be cute and young. He is already eight, and will soon turn into a gangly pre-teen. Dropping his pants won't be embarrassing.  It will be indecent. Wearing Spider-Man costumes won't be endearing. It will be inappropriate. I worry sometimes about what that transition will be like. It is part of why we are doubling down on reinforcing social norms and behaviors now. But part of me does not want to force Nate to grow up. His extended childhood has been something that I treasure. One thing I know for sure, though, is we will all be better for going through the experience, and I would not trade it for the world.

7 comments:

  1. Brian,

    My son is now going through the whole pre teen challenge. Last Friday he took his clothes off at school. He didnt even think it as inappropriate. He was uncomfortable and wanted to take his clothes off. Today he was spitting at the bus driver and aide because he didn't want his shoes on his feet.

    It is very difficult.

    I wouldn't trade what I learn and cherish about him for the world.

    Thanks for sharing.

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  2. Beautiful, heartfelt, inspiring post, Brian. Our oldest had a lot of sensory issues when she was young and displayed traits common in the autistic spectrum. I dreaded seeing her Kindergarten teacher everyday after school. She is eighteen now, competent, a stellar student, has a nice group of friends, and is an exceptional writer. She has a huge following for her Doctor Who fan fic. I can't even tell you the amount of hours of angst I had over her future, which is clearly a bright one. In other words, families of special needs kids, don't lose hope or assume their lives won't be fulfilling and wonderful. They may just go about it differently than the rest of us do. :)

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  3. This was a wonderful post. You are so right about what is okay now will not be okay in 10 years. My 11 year old has Asperger's and people put up with his behavior to some extent now, but what will happen later? We grapple with social skills classes, behavioral therapy, you name it and while we did "mourn" the typical boy we'd hoped for, he also brings so much to this world. He's super funny and wickedly brilliant (for what he likes), he's social, and talkative and really does look at the world differently. We've become "better people" for knowing this little guy and I simply adore him.

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  4. Thank you for opening up, and sharing your thoughts with us regarding your son. I am sure there are others who are going through similar experiences, who will be encouraged to know they are not the only ones.

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  5. A very touching and heartfelt post, Brian. As a single parent of a 22-year-old son who has mild autism, I can truly appreciate your sentiments. Thank you for posting this. :)

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  6. Thank you for sharing your story, Brian. It is a beautiful example of the joy we can all derive, simply by loving.

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