Standing Out

Nico starts second grade this week. He will be back in-person at his elementary school after being a virtual learner for the last year and a half and I feel like we’re prepping for his Kindergarten year all over again. All of his first grade experiences were remote. I didn’t want Nico to connect school with what COVID had transformed it into during his first grade year. He may not have ever wanted to go back. For the first part of last year there was no recess, no lunchroom access, no rotations, and no real contact with classmates. These are all Nico’s most favorite things when it comes to school and I knew if he constantly heard “no” to every one of them it would have had a lasting impression. So instead, we trudged through virtual learning with the help of his miracle workers aka ABA therapy team and somehow survived the year.

I tried to fill his summer with a lot of fun and engagement since the school year was so trying for him. Virtual learning had taken a toll on me as well so I was in desperate need of some R&R. We went on an amazing beach vacation with our family, which included Nico’s cousins who know him like no one else and accept him for who he is. I always feel more at ease when we surround ourselves with others who “get it.” Who understand Nico and understand his Autism. It’s easier and less anxiety-inducing. And, as good fortune would have it, my husband and I connected with another Autism family on our trip. For once in our lives we had people outside of our family/friend circle to talk to who “got it.”

It was Nico’s cousin who recognized the behaviors that the little boy was displaying while we were all hanging in the pool one day and knew he “was like Nico.” She mentioned it to my husband and me and I couldn’t help but be proud of her because she was so empathetic towards this little boy. She didn’t just sit and stare at him or shy away from him like others can do when encountering an individual with Autism. Instead, she encouraged us to connect with his parents. I will forever be so thankful to her for urging us because once we met this lovely family and began sharing our stories of our sons it was like we were speaking our own language. I felt less alone and more empowered and I haven’t felt that way in a long time. We exchanged numbers and vowed to stay connected. It’s important to stay connected. It made me long for that type of connection with other families closer to home.

But, what I found this summer with that one family is what I hope for my son. It just takes one person to make you feel less alone…to feel included.

When Nico walks into his classroom this week, my hope is that his classmates will see past his stimming and scripting, will be open to his unique yet sometimes disruptive behaviors, and will give him more than one chance to show them that he’s a pretty cool, fun-loving kid even though he may not be able to keep up a conversation with them when they try talking to him.

And, I hope that Nico walks into his classroom with an excited disposition knowing he’s going to have a great time in second grade. I hope he leaves the worrying to me. I hope he is oblivious to what I am anxious and worried about and just focuses on whatever makes him happy in that moment (which will probably be his teacher’s amazing book corner). I feel like this is how he lives his life for the most part anyway. He is blissfully unaware of social acceptance; he has anxiety about things that HE deems important and that’s more than enough for him.

I read this incredible story the other day and I couldn’t help but be overcome with emotion by the end; that one person can make all the difference in the world. How proud his mother must be to have a son so empathetic and kind-hearted. I pray Nico’s spark attracts a good friend like that little boy. Someone who will stand next to my son and accept him for who he is. All kids deserve that. I want this year to be the start of many great years filled with friendships and acceptance and inclusion. I want to know that when I host birthday parties for Nico they will be filled with not just his family, but with friends he has made at school. And, I can only hope that he will be invited to some himself.

I tend to see social media posts floating around this time of year asking people to “choose kind” and I can’t help but think that they must’ve been initiated by parents just like me who are worried about their children being accepted and treated with respect. It’s a concern not just reserved for Autism parents. So today, I join the countless number of parents who, as they send their kids off to begin another school year, hope and pray that it’s a positive, uplifting and inclusive one. The world is filled with way too much negative energy and superficiality; it’s so tough to be a kid today. We have to start helping our children change this harmful narrative that can so easily penetrate their school hallways. With that said, my biggest hope for our students this year is this:

If you want to stand out in school, be the one who stands out by standing UP for and SIDE by SIDE with someone in need.

And to my Nico…we’ll take each day as it comes like we always do. Just do your best, be your best, and see the best in everyone and everything. Mom and Dad love you very much! Good luck!

Being Seen

Today autism won. Today it got the best of my Nico and me. I learned today that even though Nico has grown in so many ways, he is beginning to struggle with new issues that will bring about all new coping mechanisms for both him and my husband and me. Today I felt like I never wanted to take Nico out in public again and I haven’t felt that way in a very long time.

The signs were there since the morning so we probably should’ve known, but we have our family in town and we wanted to enjoy an evening out with them. Thank God for our family though. They are patient, understanding, empathetic, and always willing to stand right alongside my husband and me as we try our hardest to manage Nico when he is having a hard day. It can be taxing and I know it’s not fun to be around, but it brings me comfort knowing they’re there with us. I feel less alone and it helps keep my anxiety that starts creeping back in at bay.

I probably should’ve stayed home with Nico and let the rest of the family go to dinner, but I thought we could manage. The whining started as we were walking out. Why didn’t I take him back in and just say forget it? Then we get there and the muffled, repetitive “time to go home” responses kick in and I should’ve just headed to the car with him. But, the kicker was when he spilled his snack all over the floor and knew he couldn’t eat them after that.

It was all downhill from there. The crying started. The bellowing followed. The angry grunts began. And, he started banging the table in utter frustration. No amount of “calm down” or “stop it, Nico” from my husband would suffice. Even after my husband feverishly picked every last one of the dropped snacks off the ground and got them out of Nico’s sight, he still could not appease our poor, struggling child. And to make matters even worse (because, why not?), Nico stood up and started screaming so I had to grab him (while seated in a huge open and public outdoor eating area, mind you) to try and get him quiet and calm. I was hoping that if I squeezed him tightly it would provide him the input he was in desperate need of at that moment.

I could feel my throat start to tighten and the tears forming in the corners of my eyes. Not to mention all the stares from onlookers that felt suffocatingly too close for comfort. I was literally going to tell my husband to give me the car keys when I looked up and saw it.

The most endearing and sincere, smiling face.

Amidst the stares and curious glances, this one woman just looked at me, gave me the most compassionate smile and winked. It happened within seconds and yet those simple gestures brought me such peace.

I work so hard to stay patient. To keep my cool with Nico even though it’s a very difficult thing to do when you are tired and have a demanding toddler to manage as well, but I try my hardest to stay calm for Nico’s sake. I know he can’t help it in most instances like today. He was over sensitized, probably tired, mad that he dropped his snack, and struggling because his need for perfection tells him that he shouldn’t have done that so I was really reconciling with all of that in order to not lose my patience or burst out crying (which is really what I wanted to do). It’s what my Mom would refer to as “grace under pressure.” This ability to hold it together when inside you’re feeling like you’re falling apart. I learned this such grace from her and let me tell ya…it’s an art.

That was what was happening to me in that moment as I held Nico close to my chest, squeezing him so he would calm down while also providing him some input to help regulate his out of control behavior. And if it wasn’t for that kind woman’s simple gestures I may have not been able to keep my grace today.

I wish I could’ve said thank you to her. It felt so good to be seen. I’d always hoped that when I flashed a smile or supportive glance at a parent, struggling with a child, that it provided some sense of comfort, but now having experienced it myself I have to believe it did. I wonder if this woman had a special needs child and knew exactly what we were going through in those moments. Or, maybe she was just a parent who knew what it was like to have an off-day with a child. Either way, that smile and wink saved me mentally.

I wish I could say her gestures were magical and changed the whole dynamic of our evening, but alas, Nico still struggled throughout the rest of our dinner and didn’t make the evening a pleasant one. However, I just kept seeing that smile and wink flash in front of me and I was able to stay composed through the rest of our time at the restaurant.

Today made me really think long and hard again about what Nico’s future might have in store for us. If we’re now moving into a stage of obsessive compulsive behaviors and the need for constant control of everything and everyone, what will these next years usher in for him? Will I be able to keep my grace under pressure forever? Will our family stay patient and empathetic? Will he have any friends? Will we ever go out as a family and be able to enjoy ourselves?

I honestly don’t know. If you asked me for answers to these questions right now, the answer would probably be a resounding NO. But, after experiencing such divine intervention (in more ways than one, I’m sure) I have to believe that there will be more…

smiles in the grocery store

winks at a restaurant

compassion from the barber

miracles worked each day by his therapists

empathy and acceptance from his classmates

willingness to come to our home so Nico can stay home where he’s most comfortable

and embraces from family and friends when they are needed the absolute most to get me through the next meltdown, breakdown, struggle, etc.

I have to remember that tomorrow is a brand new day and it quite literally could be a terrific day for Nico. That’s typically how it works in our little world. However, I also know it could be a tough day for another parent out there in the universe and I want to always feel ready to share a wink and a smile with someone in need just as I was gifted with those lovely tokens of empathy today.

I used to be so scared to go out with Nico for fear of the stares we would get from others and although today brought me back to that place of fear and anxiety momentarily, I didn’t mind being seen today because it was through being seen that I received the most peace when struggling with my son’s autism. Life’s funny that way, I guess.

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.