Friday, September 23, 2011

(Not) Crying Over Spilled Milk

It was early Thursday evening. Normally I'd be home with the kids, hanging out, playing outside, or getting started on dinner. But today we were in the car headed to the church. I was volunteering for Saturday's big consignment sale.

The kids went into the church nursery where another mom had agreed to keep an eye on the kids of other volunteers as well. Ethan eyed the TV warily as she put a DVD on (he's had a thing about movies in that room since someone left it on static for about 20 minutes one day when she couldn't get it to work). But he seemed fine. Quiet, but fine.

I did my thing, hauling box after box of used toys to a back room. Dan showed up after an hour and said he'd take the kids to get some dinner. "I'll be home soon," I told both kiddos, and went back to work. "I don't like this!" I heard Ethan saying, as he looked over the toys and clothes and bustling activity. "I don't like this."

Simple enough, right?

An hour and a half later, I was home and eating leftovers. "Ethan's been really whiney since I took him home," Dan told me. "He keeps talking about milk."

Ethan was sitting on the couch. He looked unsettled. "We'll get more next time," he was saying. "I dumped it in the trash." I looked to Dan for more.

"I caught him dumping the last of his milk in the trash at the restaurant," he explained. "He didn't seem that upset at that time."

"Ethan, what's wrong? Are you sad?" I asked. His mouth was turning down into one of the biggest pouts I'd ever seen, and he was doing that shuddery cry thing. "I..I..I'm not sad," he said as he burst into tears again. "We need more milk!" he wailed. "I threw my milk in the trash! We have to go to the restaurant and get more milk!"

I sat there, racking my brain. I reassured him that it was okay that he'd dumped out his milk. We had more at home. It was an accident (maybe?) and next time he could have more milk at the restaurant.

"I threw it in the trash!" he kept wailing emphatically. "We'll get more milk next time. We have to get more!"

I thought back to Sunday at the church picnic, swarming with hundreds of people at a local park. Ethan had suddenly clicked into Mr. Insistent -- he HAD to pull the wagon we had with us, immediately. Two seconds before, it hadn't mattered, then it was all that mattered. "Ethan, are you scared?" I had asked him. "I'm scared of the people," he answered. He was overwhelmed. The nearest comfort he had zeroed in on was the wagon.

Sitting there in the living room I knew what was happening in front of me had not much to do with the milk at the restaurant. My boy was overwhelmed, and it had all come to a head the moment he had overturned that little carton in the garbage can.

I sat next to him on the couch. I lowered my voice and rubbed his back. "Were you scared at the church?" I asked.

"Yes!" he cried, shuddering.

"You didn't like all the people and the mess, did you?"

"Nooo...and I dumped out the milk in the trash!" I gave him a hug; said a prayer; whispered that it was okay. I told him the clothes and toys at the church were for a big sale. People were going to buy them. Then they would be gone. We got him more milk and he gave us pretend sips. He talked a bit more about the milk. But he started to smile and laugh.

My boy has been doing so well lately. His natural personality is so easygoing, and lately at school he's been so "go with the flow" that sometimes I forget to see through his eyes.

I rewound the afternoon in my head. I saw us doing something completely off our normal routine -- going to church on a Thursday, no less! The kids staying in the nursery with a different helper and different kids and Ethan having the dreaded movie on. I saw in my head the church basement the way Ethan saw it...empty halls and rooms suddenly transformed into this mass of people and racks of clothes and boxes and toys piled on tables ("I don't like it!" he had announced, after all). And then Dan coming out of nowhere and taking them to eat somewhere, without me, when normally we'd be home eating around the dinner table.

Sometimes Ethan can be so quick and adjust so well that we get lax. We forget that taking the time to spend five extra minutes explaining a change in routine can make all the difference in the world.

Sometimes we forget to see through the eyes of autism. Then, something happens and we're reminded that behaviors are rarely just behaviors -- they are communication. Ethan sobbing about the milk was Ethan trying to tell us something. He was overwhelmed and distraught. And suddenly all of those feelings landed squarely on the milk incident.

I think of my own life, how the last thing that happens on a bad day can be the tipping point that pushes me over the edge. The tears and yelling when I bang my leg on a chair is really also about the argument I got in that morning...the repairs the mechanic called about...the messes the kids didn't clean up...the project I didn't come close to finishing.

We all have days when we're overwhelmed. People on the autism spectrum I think have more of them. I think of what it would be like to be overwhelmed by sounds and sights the average person would not even notice. I think of how hard they have to fight to hold it together when plans are changed, routines are altered, and things don't go the way they normally go.

I think of how many people on the spectrum are unable to share that they are overwhelmed...scared...stressed -- that there are parents who long to hear their children say, "I'm scared. I'm worried. I'm sad." We all want to know what's wrong so we can try to fix it.

It's frustrating that Ethan can't always just "go with the flow." But I'm so grateful he can tell me when his natural order of things has been deeply disrupted. Even if it's in the language of spilled milk.

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