Monday, November 12, 2012

Playgroup Epiphany

The room was crowded, at our Monday playgroup in the school just down the street. Apparently everyone needed to get out of the house. The final tally was 18 kids, when usually 10 or 12 show up.

Being packed into a rather small room with that many kids makes Ethan a little tense (who am I kidding -- it makes ME tense!). I noticed he was a little less flexible; a little more grabby with toys. Sometimes there's such a fine line: Is he just being a kid? Is he just being a brat? Is his behavior something more, affected by issues beyond his control? Or a combination of the three?

When he walked up to a toddler playing catch with his mom, grabbed the ball, and trotted off, I knew I had to put my foot down. The mom, who I didn't know, gave me the classic look that says You Need to Control Your Child. I did, of course, but thought maybe now would be the opportunity to speak up.

"My son gets overprotective with his favorite toys sometime," I said. "He has mild autism and I think all of the people here today are stressing him out a bit." Before I had time to think of how much my words sounded like a cop-out and an excuse, another woman I'd never seen before whipped around in her chair.

"He has autism? So does my grandson," she said, with eager eyes. Apparently her "autism radar" had been up. I've done the same thing. I could empathize with the desperation in her eyes...that eager desire to make a connection. Her granddaughter sat coloring at the table beside her.

I gave her a two-sentence description of Ethan's background. Turns out, her grandson attends Ethan's school (but is in one of the elementary grades).

"Have you tried any of the special diets?" she asked intensely.

No, I told her, we hadn't gone that route.

"Does he go to a special autism doctor?"

Yes, I told her, he visits the developmental pediatrician every year.

"What about school? Does he have supports at school?"

I talked about pre-K, and his therapies, and social skills group, and who knew exactly what for next year in kindergarten.

"Are you working on things with him, like eye contact, stuff like that?"

I told her we were, that were weren't obsessive over it, not forcing it, but encouraged it as a way to relate to others.

As we talked, I grew more and more uncomfortable. I couldn't figure out why at first. Then I kept listening.

She told me her grandson was reading -- but was a whole year behind.

She told me how picky he was and how she was going to have bring him a Happy Meal at school and how someone at school got in trouble for heating up his meals and that wasn't right because he won't eat his food any other way.

She told me there was no way she could attend the support group I'd mentioned because that was his "down time" and he needed to unwind.

She told me that she'd told her grandson's parents different things they should do but they never did them and so she ends up doing them herself.

As I talked, I could sense her frustration. I also wondered: did she see her grandson as primarily a child, or a problem?

I heard myself talking, with Ethan right there, and for the first time I wondered: What if he was truly listening and truly understood? Were my words resonating with love? Or was I presenting him as a clinical situation, a diagnosis?

"He's got pretty good eye contact right now," she said after Ethan asked me a question, and I nodded. Another parent there who used to be an ABA therapist jumped in, talking about the way they used to give the kids food treats for looking them in the eye. For the first time I wondered, What is my son thinking? Did he hear her? What does he think of this?

We shuffled through leaves towards home, later. I couldn't stop thinking.

My hunch was that this woman was so desperate to talk to someone, and in the limited amount of time had no choice but to rattle off each issue her grandson was going through. I'd done the same thing in similar situations.

But I couldn't shake the feeling that we'd been talking about issues rather than children.

I couldn't help but feel I had been treating my child like a specimen.

Ethan will learn more and understand more. We need to be ready. We need to choose our words carefully. Someday, perhaps not too far in the future, he will surely be listening.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

So true. I've often caught myself talking about Rhema to a therapist or another parent as if she weren't there. They are definitely listening and already understanding more than we realize. Thank you for the reminder, you are such a thoughtful, beautiful mother to Ethan and Anna.