Essayist Shawn Graves
By Shawn Graves
“I was totally and utterly clueless how to deal with this amazing boy…”
We’ll call him Tree – trees fascinate him. He climbs them in reality and in his dreams, fearlessly. Tree is five years old. When his mother (“Mom”) and I started dating, we immediately spoke of our children. I have two daughters, 3 and 7. Mom has two sons, 5 and 11, and a daughter, 14. We both found out quickly that we were proud parents and shared several parenting notions and ideals. She then explained to me that Tree was autistic. Of course, I have heard of autism before. But I was soon find out I knew nothing of it. I mean it’s our nature, right? If something doesn’t directly affect us or interest us, we rarely find out more about it than what the media tells us or what mainstream society thinks about it.
I honestly didn’t give the issue much thought — I was a great parent, and kids have always loved me. I practically raised my younger siblings; did a couple babysitting gigs. I can handle anything kids related — bring it on. How hard can this be? I’ll Google “autism” and read a couple web pages, check out what Wikipedia has to say about it, skim through a book Mom has lying around and I’ll be good. That research method got me through college and most projects at work, so … piece of cake.
As with any new experience, I was full of wonder, curiosity and apprehension. I being a parent of non-autistic children, Tree challenged everything I knew of behavior, understanding, discipline, and development in children. Here I was, high on my horse, silently boasting of my past parenting and older sibling experiences and successes, and in reality, I was totally and utterly clueless how to deal with this amazing boy.
Tree is endearing and sweet — he will melt you where you stand. He can smile, or wink, or show me his muscles. Or a hug and a “I wuv ew” in Tree-speak. He will run and play and climb and laugh and bounce. Sometimes, it’s not words at all. He’ll smile and look into my eyes, and I’ll smile back looking into his eyes — more communication than a thousand verbal words could convey. Or, out of nowhere, he’ll come up and give you a little peck on the cheek — the world instantly becomes a better place. I admire his lack of fear and his sense of adventure. Make no mistake; he will capture your heart.
“I try to get into his world, but sometimes there’s no path for that.”
I see Tree and I see his frustrations with trying to explain to everyone what goes on in his little world. Sometimes his frustrations turn into my frustrations. When he gets confused, hurt, mad, or sad, I don’t know what to do. My instinct is just to talk it out with him, and that doesn’t always work. I realized even after all my years of effective communication, education and parenting, all methods in my arsenal are completely useless. I try to get into his world, but sometimes there’s no path for that. I have to accept that at times there will be a brick wall up and I’m not getting through. Sometimes, as his mother says, he has to “sort it out.”
I have to remind myself not to confuse Tree’s confusion and pain for disobedience or defiance. I try to imagine myself trapped inside my own body, where I have so much to say and express and I cannot find a way to do it. He will try to tell me something and get frustrated because I can’t understand. I get frustrated when I tell my daughters to do something and they don’t understand — I need to relate more to that fact.
In some ways, we all face that frustration, right? When we can’t get someone to understand or we can’t get someone to listen or agree. It’s that for Tree, except exponentially magnified. He causes me to evaluate myself — the way I communicate, the way I adapt. I become a better person — we all do when we learn to adapt and communicate in new ways. To me, autistic development isn’t just about the child learning and adapting. It’s about us as adults learning and adapting. It forces us back to the basics of love, communication, understanding, and patience.
Sometimes, he gets angry and lashes out — he may scream, kick, bite, hit — gestures and actions take place of the words he cannot find. I find myself upset sometimes, ashamedly. Are my frustrations rooted in the fact that I can’t figure out how to calm him or understand him? Is it out of impatience or my lack of control in the situation? Or I am frustrated out of my own ignorance? I think it’s a little of all of these reasons. I am constantly challenging myself on dealing with this.
My intent is not to sound like I know anything about autism — I still know nothing. I don’t pretend to know the full struggle of raising an autistic child — I don’t have a clue about the trials, the pain, the joy. I am an outsider, and am experiencing autism through a child and his mother. I don’t intentionally make rationalizations, conclusions, or generalizations that aren’t true. This is simply how I observe it so far — very early in this journey.
So, what do I do now? Is the answer in trying to get Tree to understand me, or should I be trying to understand him instead? Maybe both. This is a challenge I look forward to — a rewarding challenge. I’m amazed and enthralled by Tree, and I have just scratched the surface of knowing who he is. Mom often apologizes for his behavior — the fits, the lashing out, the screaming. I think that sometimes she can visibly see my confusion and frustration. I try and reassure her that she has nothing to apologize for. It should be me apologizing for not having enough patience and understanding. I am still learning that my John Wayne (tough-as-nails, my-way-or-the-highway) parenting philosophy I use on my own kids doesn’t work here, at all. This is where I need to change, not Tree.
Ed Note: Shawn is a program manager for Northrop Grumman in Memphis, TN. Aside from enjoying time with Tree and his mother, he enjoys running, reading and hanging out with his two young daughters.