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.

When Family Shows Up

This last month has been filled with some really amazing highs and some incredible lows. Such is life, I suppose, but when you’re trying to wade through the tumultuousness of a nationwide pandemic–while raising a child with Autism in the midst of it–the highs just don’t ring as high and the lows leave a more somber, stifling effect. That’s when it’s so absolutely invaluable when family shows up.

I knew celebrating Max’s 1st birthday was not going to be as grand as I always envisioned it to be thanks to COVID, but I was still going to find a way to create memories with him to help document this milestone birthday. I was also struggling a bit with the fact that we were going to have to celebrate it in our temporary house since our beautiful home was in the midst of a lengthy journey of restoration from a summer water damage disaster which upended our lives in more ways than one, especially Nico’s.

And if that wasn’t enough, we were also still reeling from the recent loss of my husband’s grandma/the boys’ sweet Abuelita so we were now prepared for Max’s birthday to be filled with bittersweet emotions. Needless to say, the lows were definitely outpacing the highs. Max’s 1st Birthday had to be the high of all highs so October could avoid being another month to succumb to a case of the “2020s.”

As a result of us being out of our own home for over four months now, Nico has had to adjust to so many new environments and that is such a huge feat for him. Plus, he has really struggled in this new virtual first grade school year as he has traversed through remote learning. There is no sugar coating that. It has been less than ideal and there have been days where I have just cried at the lack of progress I feel he is making because he is not having a typical school year like he did last year. After having such a tremendously successful Kinder year in an inclusion classroom (up until March) we were so hopeful for what elementary school would be like for him. But, COVID has robbed so much from Nico and I have no idea what to expect anymore.

I miss the social interactions Nico had with his classmates. He is already limited to who he actually interacts with typically due to his social-emotional challenges and lack of communication so going to basically zero social interactions with kids his own age (outside of the few children he interacts with at his therapy center) really makes me nervous. His classmates this year truly can’t get to know who Nico is and how engaging he can be. They only get glimpses of him through a sterile Zoom meeting environment. And, since most of those interactions show him stimming, scripting, or having a parent assist him with answering, his classmates are only seeing ONE side of Nico. This has now lead to the curious looks and the lack of “Hi, Nico” from his classmates while other kids in his class exchange pleasantries each morning with each other.

I know Nico may not notice or be aware of it (thankfully), but it resonates loudly and clearly with me and breaks my heart a little more each day. I can’t help but feel like the lows have been taking the lead in our home. However, I try to keep things upbeat in our house with lots of song and dance and hugs and kisses. There is never a lack of affection and although many people believe that children and adults with Autism do not like to be touched and do not display affection or empathy, this is a huge myth! My Nico is extremely loving and affectionate.

So, when our family showed up for Max’s birthday week it lifted our spirits and transformed our house into one of celebration and positivity on almost an existential level!

Our family drove countless hours, despite going through their own journey of grief, to make sure we could ring in Max’s 1st Birthday with a bit more pomp and circumstance like we’re used to when it comes to milestone birthdays. They know how important family is to us, especially Nico, and they showed up! It was probably the best decision for all of us because laughter and joy through tears makes everything so much better.

In those two weeks they were here with us, there was more normalcy in our lives. Nico had friends to exchange morning greetings with because his cousins are his best friends and include him in all they do. They never look at him strangely or exclude him from anything because they don’t understand him. Nor do they assume that because he doesn’t know how to initiate playful interactions with them that he doesn’t want to play with them. His cousins have always found ways to make my son feel included because they learn what Nico values and enjoys and engage him around those things. They go beyond just saying “Hi, Nico” which is what I was settling for just so that he had some sense of social interaction with others.

Inclusion like this is what I miss so much about Nico’s experiences last year in school. And, I know it is what fuels growth in all those with Autism. Nico experienced such progress and had so many positive moments because of the inclusivity that was cultivated in his classroom last year. It was nice to have some of that same inclusivity for Nico in our own home for awhile.

Having family with us made virtual learning feel a bit less tedious, our temporary home feel a bit more like our own home, and gave Nico the boost he needed to get him through a month that had us all craving some good ol’ TLC.

And, as October came to a close and Día de Los Muertos was upon us–that special day of the year where we welcome back the spirits of our lost loved ones into our home–I decided to finally take the time to display an altar. This altar would honor our family and friends who we had lost over the years. I would commit to doing it every year and then something always kept me from bringing it to fruition.

But, this year I needed to do it for my own spiritual healing. I needed to do it for my own emotional well-being too. I also felt my Nico needed a bit more family enveloping him with as much love as possible this year; this year has been a doozy for us.

It was the best way to keep family around us right now when we need them the most. With the holidays approaching, its hard to think about having to socially distance from those we need, especially when COVID is spiking again, flu season is upon us, and Election Day is just around the corner (and all that that day could incite).

Family, for me, has always been my top priority and I have a husband who mirrors those same values. And, when raising a child with special needs, you really do need family to lean on because it is HARD. To manage the pitfalls of life while staying controlled for a child who could meltdown at any moment when all you want to do is meltdown yourself…that’s HARD. This is when family shows up and takes on the meltdown, your child’s or yours, and it is life-(saving)changing.

You can be vulnerable with family and know that just like they are there on the best days, they are also there on your worst. We, special needs parents, must take care of ourselves because there are not many others who can care for our children. These are tough times and it is easy to become worn out and we don’t have the luxury of getting sick because no one can take care of our children better than we can….except maybe our family.

Make time for family right now. Especially now.

All I know is that you make time for the people that matter in your life. Despite everything, you show up. Family does this. And, I have to trust and believe that they keep showing up even if it is only in the stillness of our hearts or with a passing flutter of a butterfly’s wing. With every memory they evoke in us, family is forever.