Freeze Frame

I wish I could freeze time. Right now. Just freeze it as it stands—regardless of all the chaos that is enveloping our world at the moment—because Nico is having an amazing summer.

I don’t think I have ever felt this at ease with my son in the five and a half years since his diagnosis. I had to actually stop and think back to the last time Nico had a real meltdown or bad day because I couldn’t understand why I was feeling so content lately. Normally I am so silently on-edge, waiting for something to happen. But, he has been so regulated and happy these last several weeks that I, for the first time since his diagnosis, haven’t been hyper-focused on his Autism.

No joke. No exaggeration. I have not looked at my son and thought about Autism. I have not felt anxious, overwhelmed, or hopeless in what feels like ages and it’s because Nico seems so content with life. It’s not as if he has completely stopped stimming or scripting. He hasn’t changed up his interests or diet or sensory needs in any extraordinary way; yet, I have been utterly transfixed on his lighthearted disposition.

Now, it could be 100% attributed to the fact that he has spent a majority of his summer so far with his cousins and he feels so comfortable with them. He can be himself with them. They just get him. Nico doesn’t have to say anything or do anything extra for his cousins to know what he needs or wants. They know when he needs a break. They know when he needs affection. They know when he wants something simply because they have learned to pick up on his verbal cues and nonverbal behaviors.

With a pandemic in full effect, typical summer vacation plans were squashed, but that didn’t stop Nico and his cousins from enjoying a family-imposed “Stay at home” order. They swam all day, watched movies, snacked until their tummies were busting at the seams, stayed up way too late for their own good, laughed until their insides hurt, and made these quarantined times as fun-filled for each other as possible.

And with Nico spending so much time with his family, he is using more language again. He is socializing more. He wants to be around us more. My heart is bursting because my son is engaged and present in ways that I haven’t seen for awhile. This is what we had been missing ever since schools switched to remote learning and kids weren’t in school socializing anymore.

However, if there is one moment from this summer so far that I could freeze and replay over and over again it would be the moment Nico gave genuine attention to his baby brother, Max. Normally, it’s like pulling teeth to get Nico to even acknowledge that Max exists. He knows his brother is here to stay, but he just lets Max do his thing while he does his. But, the other evening, I was rocking Max to sleep in my arms and we were both nodding off when I felt the most subtle brush past my arm. I opened my eyes and there was Nico rubbing Max’s head ever so gently. Just enough to let him know, “I see you. I love you. You mean something to me.” But, not with too much pressure that would have woken either of us up.

He sat there and rubbed Max’s head for a good minute or so and I kept ever so still with my eyes slightly ajar, watching my sweet boy give his brother love and attention…on his own terms. On his own time. I didn’t open my eyes or let him know that I saw him. I wanted Nico to have that moment for himself. That’s what he wanted. A private moment between brothers. Instead, I choked back my tears, took a mental photograph of the moment, and noted the date and time for memory’s sake.

My sweet boy continues to surprise me each and every day. There is still so much of him I have yet to discover, so when he is present in the moment with me or welcoming me into his world I have to recognize it on a grander scale.

Now, I don’t know what the remainder of summer will have in store for us when we have to say goodbye to our family. I know it will crush us, especially Nico. And, I am scared beyond words at the thought of the upcoming school year and what option is the best for him. I know the socialization and daily routine are absolutely paramount for Nico’s continual progress and growth, but not at the cost of our family’s health.

In a year with so many atrocities and so much despair, I want to carve out this one fragment of time and just hang on to it for dear life. Who knows if these moments will ever be replicated again. Autism can shift and change at any time and take Nico in a completely different direction.

But, what I do know is that Nico is happy. Nico is having fun. Nico is surrounded by his family who seem to magically evoke this incredible transformation which frees him of challenges and limitations.

So, for now, I plan on giving Nico a summer filled with as much socially distanced, quality, quarantined family fun time as possible.

Let’s just hope that this blog post will not trigger a tsunami of superstitious jinxing (which really means Nico decides to basically say, “just joking, mom…here’s an epic meltdown for ya!”) at its conclusion. Fingers crossed!

Stay safe and healthy, but remember to live, love, and laugh everyday. We’re all in this together.

A Mother’s Love

I don’t think there is any stronger love than that of a mother’s. There is not anything I wouldn’t do for Nico to make his life easier, less of a struggle, more fulfilled, or more neurotypical. I have made ultimate sacrifices for him that have truly tested my faith, patience, and resolve, but I literally could not imagine NOT working this hard for my child.

This pandemic has been catastrophic on many levels and it has affected our little family in many ways, especially Nico. The only silver linings I have clung to have been the fact that he has his ABA therapy everyday and our backyard haven. We follow strict guidelines so that we know both Nico’s therapist and Nico are healthy each day they work together. Without ABA right now, I don’t know where we would be. And, when Nico comes home he enjoys his pool, swing, and trampoline in the backyard since going out or traveling is out of the question. That has been our life for months now and because of this dramatic change in daily life, Nico has regressed. I know he will have to relearn so much. It keeps me up at night just thinking about. I walk around my house with knots in my stomach just thinking about it.

As a mother, my life is my children. I have two now so I have to spend it equally between both of them, but that can be tough when one has special needs. I just always feel myself being pulled a little bit more towards Nico. Being a bit more protective of Nico. Wanting to give Nico a smidge more attention otherwise he would really never interact with his father, brother and me. Nico would be perfectly content to sit in the living room with us, but live in his own world surrounded by his books, his iPad, and his little knickknacks he finds around the house and collects in a pile. I catch myself staring at him, just wondering what he’s thinking. Wondering if he even knows or cares that his mother is literally watching him from just a few feet away with such wonderment and concern. I wish so many things for him. Every chance I get, I am trying to get him to talk appropriately or engage with us in functional ways. I live for the moments when he wants to be tickled or wants to show us his dance moves. It shows me that he can connect to us when he wants to.

Nico has no idea how much I truly love him. It’s an all-consuming feeling. I cannot find enough words to even describe the feeling. I tell him every single day, multiple times a day, that I love him. He very rarely registers what I’m saying, but I have to believe he knows what those words mean and he knows that he is loved. I now fully understand what my mom meant when she said those same words to me over 20 years ago. “You have no idea how much I love you…truly you don’t and I will never be able to explain it to you.” I found it so overly dramatic at the time, but I allowed her to hug me and gush over me because we were setting up our home for my high school graduation party and she was feeling very sentimental. I gave her a big kiss, told her I loved her to pieces, and then took off before she got weepy because I knew it was headed in that direction and I was a teenager just wanting to finish my chores. I knew she loved me, but as I reflect back…I really had no idea how much she loved me.

I am beyond thankful though that we had that moment together and she spoke those words to me because it would be our last mother/daughter moment. I would not have her with me after that day and I discovered there truly is no substitute for that kind of love—a mother’s love.

It’s a love that makes you wake up at 7am every weekend to make your children their favorite pancakes.

It’s a love that makes you take out every seed from a watermelon because you know your kids struggle with the seeds.

It’s a love that has you making your own secret blend of cinnamon sugar for your child’s favorite food in the world—cinnamon toast—because it makes him deliriously happy.

It’s a love that makes you stay up until 2am on the weekends to play all the Super Mario Bros. games because it is the best time to spend quality time with your one child while the other is sound asleep.

It’s a love that makes you want to sing to your child each morning and evening because his eyes radiate and it puts a smile on his face to hear music.

It’s a love that makes you leave everyone and everything you have ever known and move to a whole new state so your child can have a better quality of life despite your fears and reservations.

And, it’s a love that will continue to break you down, build you back up, carry you through, knock you over, and make you whole again because it’s a love reserved for your children.

My sons have no clue how much I absolutely love and adore them, despite how much I smother them with kisses and hugs and “I love you.” Just like I had no clue how much my mother truly loved and adored me in those childhood moments. But, I am so grateful to her because she taught me what a mother’s love should look like and feel like and what it endures and sacrifices.

So June 27th will always be my day to go an extra mile in showing my sons what a mother’s love feels like because there is nothing else like it. And for my Nico, I will continue to try and move mountains for you because you deserve nothing less.

The Great Regression

I knew this wasn’t going to be easy. The goal was to take it day by day. It was not supposed to be this long. This was not supposed to be the new normal.

March was just supposed to bring with it an extended Spring Break and then back to school he would go. The year would continue. Progress would continue. The pit in my stomach would continue to dissipate a little more each day because Nico would thrive a bit more each day.

It is now May and my sweet boy is missing out on so much. He has been isolated from the real world for far too long. For him, being home reading his books (over and over again) is completely normal for him, but that was something that school had really changed up for him and I had welcomed such a healthy change of pace. So much of the Kindergartner that I was seeing in him on the daily is disappearing and what is presenting itself now is eerily too familiar.

Nico is regressing.

I can see it every time I try to play with one of his things. His ability to share has started to wane because he has no one to share with anymore. No peers to interact with daily. No one to hold him accountable and show him how to share other than his parents and it’s just different when it comes from us. School was doing wonders for him in this department. He’s not as focused on what I’m saying or asking him anymore. He responds with a “yes” to basically every question I ask whether it be about reading, math, or writing and before I even finish asking it. He is getting easily frustrated when he makes a mistake or answers something wrong and that is leading to more self-injurious behaviors. Banging his hand on the table in protest is something I am having to combat again. Virtual learning is the furthest from Nico’s comfort zone and it is taking a toll on him…and me.

The meltdowns have become more frequent too. This is extremely jarring for me because it takes me back to our early diagnosis days where we couldn’t go a day without a meltdown. Because he has been without speech therapy, academic instruction, and socialization, his communication is regressing. He is becoming more frustrated again when he can’t find the words to voice why he is upset. This is leading to aggression.

Mother’s Day 2020 left me a bit shaken and scarred…literally. Nico’s meltdown caused him to scratch me pretty badly and that rocked my world. He had not had a meltdown like that in a long time and not only did it last for several minutes, he was aggressive towards me in a way that was completely unrecognizable. My sweet boy is loving and affectionate so I could never truly imagine a world where he would be anything but that. I think that’s why this meltdown affected me so deeply. I went to bed panicked that this quarantine may have sparked a new chapter in Nico’s journey that would cause him to start becoming more aggressive. It’s dramatic to think like that, but there are several children and adults on the severe end of the spectrum and they are physically aggressive to themselves and others daily. My heart breaks for them and their families every time I read one of their stories. That’s the side of Autism which isn’t talked much about in mainstream media, but it’s a serious concern for Autism parents.

Ever since that meltdown I have felt my anxiety levels increase and a sense of hopelessness start to creep in. It has also made me sit and reflect on how I’ve been feeling overall with everything that is going on and I am realizing more and more that I, too, may be regressing. I, honest to God, feel myself losing track of hours and days. I can’t formulate words or thoughts as easily anymore. Baking and cooking have been keeping me sane and working out has been keeping my endorphins somewhat elevated, but any time your child is struggling it affects you 10x harder so, needless to say, the anxiety has felt Herculean. I’m feeling myself losing hope. I know it’s probably because I’m antsy and tired of being cooped up. I’m stressed out because of the current situation, but nevertheless I’m feeling like optimism is slipping away.

I’m seeing so clearly now that Nico continues to have major deficits and it’s scaring the hell out of me. He can’t write anything other than his name. He can read so well—truly can read anything—but when I ask him simple comprehension questions he cannot communicate those answers to me. He can’t sit still for more than two minutes. He’s scripting and stimming nonstop while I try to get him to focus on his schoolwork so I know he is not fully aware of what I am trying to teach him. And, at the end of the day, Nico is not talking to me. We can’t even talk about how he’s feeling being out of school and away from his friends because he simply cannot verbalize his feelings and it breaks my heart. I know my sweet boy misses school but we can’t talk about it because Nico doesn’t communicate functionally and I have no idea if he ever will.

What I’ve learned is that Nico and I aren’t living in a cooperative world. We’re living in parallel worlds, looking through glass at each other. Nico opens a window into his world every now and then and lets me in, but it’s not everyday and it’s not for too long.

I have worked so hard these last five years to fill every inch of myself up with hope and push myself to believe that Nico will be just fine. My husband and I have sacrificed so much and will continue to give (up) everything we can to ensure Nico has the best quality of life, but what if that’s still not enough?

I cringe whenever I allow myself to even utter that question aloud.

Darn you, COVID! We have come too far to fall backwards. I’m too tired. Nico should not have to work twice as hard just to get back to square one. I can’t have the same conversations with his therapists and teachers again about behaviors and goals that he had mastered, but now has to remaster because he has regressed. And I can’t even think about what this “new normal” is going to do to our school system, but, if the CDC has anything to do with it, it will be a nightmare. I understand the rationale for all of these precautionary measures; however, after I read their guidelines for reopening schools in the next school year I almost stroked out. No child should be subjected to an environment like that, but kids like Nico will struggle in all new ways and I cant fathom my son suffering through that regardless of how resilient he is.

I’ve been talking to my other Autism moms and I know I’m not alone. We’re all feeling so defeated right now. And I know that these feelings aren’t just reserved for special needs parents. This pandemic is taking a major toll on all of us parents and our kiddos.

This is hard. There’s no handbook for something like this. I just have to reserve the right to feel sad and grieve. So, today I am going to grieve the childhood my son deserved and is missing out on…and that has everything to do with the pandemic, not Autism.

Ironically, Autism has done a tremendous job of preparing us for social distancing. At the beginning of our journey with Autism, we spent plenty of time at home not wanting to be social for fear of what it might trigger in Nico. So, in this respect, Autism has managed to come through for me and produce a social distancing silver lining amongst all of this regression. It truly does bring about so many unexpected surprises.

Let’s hope better days and good things are coming…