Ripple Effect

I woke up today and Nico was staring at me. I’m not sure how long he had been laying there waiting for me to open my eyes, but as soon as our eyes were locked in on each other he said, “Good morning, Mom! Time to get up and face the day!” I swear to you I almost burst into tears, but held it together and just squeezed him tightly and praised him for using his words and starting my morning off on such a high note. The fact that those words came so naturally meant two things: 1. he’s getting better with his verbal communication and 2. he likes when I wake him up with that same exact greeting which is where he got it from…me.

I have really been pinching myself lately because every time I turn around Nico is saying something new and it’s being communicated so naturally. He told me the other day, “I want you to read me this book and then I want goldfish, please.” I swear, I thought I hallucinated. I could not believe my son, the one who I have prayed for daily and feared might never use full sentences, spoke to me like a typical child and without any prompting or coaching from me. He literally just came up to me on the couch with his book and spoke to me like he had been doing this sort of thing all along.

That time I did cry and I grabbed him and hugged him for what felt like, for him at least, an awkwardly long time, but I just could not let that moment pass without letting him know how proud I was of him. However, because Nico is such a literal person he did not like that I cried. It made him anxious, thinking something was wrong with me or that maybe he did something wrong and my Nico is a pleaser so I had to quickly get a grip and lighten the mood otherwise this milestone could’ve turned into a meltdown.

Nico is very in tune with others’ emotions and feelings and wants to make sure that everything is copacetic at all times. It’s one of the many areas of growth I have seen in him, especially since Max has come into our lives and since the pandemic turned his/my world upside down. He sees me on a daily basis manage his little brother, Max’s little tantrums which are totally typical of a thriving toddler, but for Nico it does not seem typical. He doesn’t like to see or hear Max get worked up so he will normally either start competing in raising his volume when Max gets loud (which is so not pleasant and helpful in any way) or he will try to calm Max down by repeating the same phrase over and over, “it’s ok, it’s ok.” Neither have had a high success rate at all so I’m sure he is thrilled when I put on a little episode of Cocomelon—yep, there is no shame in my game—on my phone and distract him with it so I can finish changing his diaper.

So, it came as no surprise, but I was, again, utterly amazed when I learned that while out for date night with my husband Nico came to his grandpa’s rescue. Max was starting to give his grandpa a bit of a hard time and wouldn’t stop fussing and crying. Nico could obviously see that his grandpa was struggling to get Max content so he grabbed his iPad, found a Cocomelon episode and put it on the couch. As soon as Max heard the theme song he immediately stopped crying and it drew his attention to the iPad. Nico didn’t say a word. He just went back to reading his books and doing his own thing.

Nico, being the amazing problem-solver that he is and always observing what is happening around him, knew exactly how to get Max to settle down because he had seen his parents do the same thing before. When my father told me this, I looked over at Nico and praised him for his valiant efforts. He didn’t say a word, but the smile and the quick flapping of his hands let me know he understood that I was proud of him.

This school year has been hard for Nico. I know he is behind academically and will need a lot of work to get caught up come next year. It keeps me up at night just thinking about all the intervention he will continue to need on top of therapy, but then I think to moments like these where he is showing such growth, understanding, and maturity and I feel a bit less anxious.

He’s using more complete sentences daily like, “I want to go to sleep” or “I would like you to sit on the couch, please” and no one is prompting him to say any of it. He’s interacting with Max more and more everyday and he watches how we handle him which I know is helping him better understand how to manage Max too.

It is absolutely true that children learn from what they see and hear. That intrigues me, but also concerns me because with Nico I know he observes and internalizes everything around him. And because he is such a literal child, he doesn’t pick up on sarcasm or the nuances of a situation and that, in turn, can have a ripple effect. Learned behaviors are like ripple effects.

I’ve become more and more aware that Nico has been learning from what he sees and hears for awhile now even if it’s only now just starting to materialize into something WE can see and hear. He has felt my stress and anxiety from all that we experienced in these last 9 months with our house flood just like he feels my joy and elation when I wake him up in the morning and give him a big morning kiss.

I want to know that at the end of the day if this year was a crapshoot academically for him that at least he has learned some other amazing life and social skills from being home with his family. I want to know that each day is filled with teachable moments for him that will create a positive ripple effect in his life just like the ones I’ve seen as of late.

Nico is brilliant in so many facets of his life and I need to believe that all of these moments and experiences he is having, both positive and challenging, are going to help inform his life on several levels—socially, emotionally, and academically. As Nico has grown I have become less fearful of autism and more fascinated by its ambiguity. And although it still seems to carry this polarizing perception, I am feeling more and more compelled to focus on all the wondrous aspects of my Nico’s autistic brain.

At the height of the pandemic last year, I was having such a difficult time seeing Nico regress so I started clambering for anything I could find online that was providing support for autism parents living through the pandemic. I came across an article that truly turned my abysmal outlook on Nico’s autism on its head. I keep this article with its list of positive traits in my phone, my purse, on my computer, and I think I may even print it out and place it on my fridge to continue to remind myself that Nico is a terrific, awe-inspiring kiddo and as his mother, I have an immense responsibility in shaping who he will become. I want his ripple effect to be one that positively impacts the lives of everyone he touches. Thankfully, Nico has a little brother who will allow him to shine as the child who follows the rules and fulfills expectations since Max is busy creating his own ripple effect in our home which is filled with destruction and exhaustion.

The Wait is Over

After nine months of hopping from house to hotel to house to hotel, we are finally back in our own home! It seems surreal to even say that. I actually don’t even believe that it can be true because we have been out of this home for so long.

We left our house on June 30, 2020 for a small family trip to Chicago so that my husband’s Abuelita could meet her great-grandson (even if that meant we stood at the front door threshold, fully masked). COVID-19 had robbed her of so much joy. She loved being with her family and her great grandchildren brought her so much happiness, but this awful pandemic stripped those visits away from her and we knew she was physically, emotionally, and mentally feeling the toll.

Our plan was to drive straight through to Chicago—18 hours—and not stop except for the bathroom so as to limit any exposure to others. Nico is an all-star road-tripper, but my Maxo…not so much. I knew I wouldn’t get lucky twice. Let’s just say the last 4 hours were what I imagine entering the gateway to Hell to feel like. I always find it so incredibly fascinating when I worry more about Nico (out of habit) and it is my neurotypical son who has me pulling my hair out and praying to St. Jude. They really need to create travel size St. Jude candles, in my opinion. That sucker would’ve been lit the whole way.

Any who, we made it safely and were only planning on staying a short time since it was in the midst of COVID and there could be no grand family reunions or gatherings. Just a modest visit so Abuelita could lock eyes on her newest family treasure. Thankfully, she had her moment with Max (and Nico, of course, who she missed terribly and was overjoyed to reunite with as well) and cherished every minute of it. I knew how crucial it was for her to meet Max. I felt it was worth taking the extra precautions and wading through the risks and I will forever be thankful we made that tough call because she passed away two months later. Just one of the many extreme let downs of 2020. Thank God for photos and photographic memories. We will always remember our visit with our sweet Abuelita.

This quick visit to Chicago; however, actually turned into a two month staycation and signified the start of our insanely difficult journey towards getting back into our home. We never came back to our home after returning from Chicago and I haven’t slept in my own bed until last night. Almost 9 months later.

I was beyond petrified that this displacement was going to throw Nico for the biggest loop of his life considering he had already dealt with a completely dysfunctional last half of the school year, had to say goodbye to his cousins in Chicago, who he had lived with for basically the whole summer and are his best friends, and was now going to have to resume virtual schooling again after a two and a half month hiatus because we chose not to send him back to his elementary school for in-person learning.

But, I think my sweet boy should’ve been more worried about his mama since I was the one having the mental meltdowns on the daily while he seemed to be, for the most part, taking each day in stride. He had moments of struggle, but nothing like what I had anticipated which tells me that this kid of mine is making monumental gains on his quest to make sense of how to live with Autism.

I laid in bed last night and literally thought back to the many months that we were displaced from our home and how taxing it was. Yet, I could not help but think about all the amazing moments that were created from this insane series of unfortunate events. It’s like what they say about childbirth…no matter how difficult it may have been, when they put your baby in your arms all of the pain and exhaustion seem to just disappear. That’s how I was feeling in that moment laying in my bed.

All I thought about were the milestones that my sons made individually and together over these 9 challenging months:

-Nico sang karaoke to his favorite songs using the microphone Santa brought him. Initiated it with us and everything. He knew every single word.

-Max took his first steps and has not stopped moving ever since. He walked a month after his first birthday so not too shy of when his big bro took his first steps which were on his actual first birthday. Stairs are Max’s favorite part of any house…lucky us.

-Now that Max is mobile, Nico finds him so much more fun and they have become best buds. Max lights up whenever Nico gives him any attention and Nico flies off the couch whenever he hears Max wake up from his nap. He even says to us, “Let’s go get Bro-Bro!”

-And speaking of Nico talking more, his verbal communication is exploding. I know it’s because of Max which just melts my heart. He talks the most to him but that’s also because Max tends to invade Nico’s personal space a lot so Nico is having to set some ground rules: “No, Max.” “Don’t touch that, Max.” “No biting, Max.” Calm down, Max.” And my favorite… “It’s time for nigh nigh, Max.” Ha!

-Max is talking too and he can use sign language to communicate when he wants more of something. He tells us when he is all done, when he wants to be picked up, he knows how to say “Dada” (insert eye roll), and is trying to recite the alphabet with his Bro-Bro. He may not be saying “Mama” yet, but he shoots me this smile that I know is reserved just for me.

-Max drinks out of a sippy cup and will eat basically anything we eat. Thank you, Jesus! No more packing a separate bag of food for another kid. This one can order right off a menu!

-Nico has learned to share so well and is so patient. Max can be a handful and constantly wants all of Nico’s things, but my sweet boy willingly shares with his brother and does not respond in kind when Max bites, hits, kicks, or pulls his hair in protest after being asked to give Nico back his toys or books. There may be an occasional knock down or a swift grab and go, but for the most part Nico just gives me a look like, “Ummm…are you going to handle this?” when Max gets unruly.

Nico is the most social he has ever been and constantly wants to go outside to play. My Neeks has never really asked to go out and play. He has always been content to just sit in the house with his books and his iPad, but ever since Max has come into his life Nico wants to play outside with his little brother.

So, although these last 9 months were agonizing in so many ways, from sleepless nights and thinning hair to the testing of my patience and my marriage, I came home to my renovated first floor with my heart full and an endless amount of hope for Nico’s communication growth. Plus, Max gets to enjoy his home from a brand new perspective since he was 8 months old when we left it and now he’s a year and a half and capable of enjoying so much more of it…and with his big brother!