If not for autism’s worrisome presence in my life, I’m pretty sure that I wouldn’t have one of these. Sure, I might be occasionally stressed or worried, as a mom with two young kids, a full time job and a tight budget is wont to be. But, I’m fairly certain that this little nuisance, my panic button, would not be my ever present companion.
Some days, I forget that it’s even there. It’s not as if life is perfect on those days. Life just happens, and I deal with it, good or bad. Shit might happen, but I’m able to shrug my shoulders and move on. Or even better, shit might not happen, and all is good.
Then there are the other days, the days when just dealing is not my forte. The worst are the days that masquerade as the good, level, calm days, but then it hits the fan. On those days, for whatever reason, I am vulnerable, and I don’t even realize it. I get blindsided. It can go something like this…
I’m standing in the checkout line at the grocery store. The 3-year-old in the cart in front of me is chattering away. Geez, she’s practically reciting her doctoral thesis, and mom isn’t even paying attention. I’m seeing the future of America here, folks, lucky freaking me! Hank is almost 5, and he doesn’t say a single recognizable word. Will he ever tell me he loves me? Does he even understand when I say it to him? I get a lump in my throat, a hollow ache in my chest. I feel something under my foot, and I look down. I’ve stepped on a panic button…damn it.
I read a Facebook status posted by a friend with an autistic child the same age as Hank. Wow! He is doing really great. I am so happy for them! Fully potty trained! That is fantastic! Yeah, that…is…great. Will Hank ever be potty trained? Will we still be changing his diapers when he is 14? I push away from the computer, but it’s too late. I have already hit the big, red panic key that I swear wasn’t on my keyboard just a few minutes ago.
That’s how it often goes. My panic button is a stealthy little bastard. I step on it. I sit on it. Sometimes a dirty look will set it off. Some days it patiently follows me around until I acknowledge it’s presence, no subterfuge necessary. Some days it’s almost comforting. I will sit at my desk and tap-tap-tap a rhythm on it while all the awful doubts and scary questions scroll through my head like the opening credits of a Star Wars movie.
Just a few days ago, I had a panic moment. I’m not even sure what set me off, but I was reduced to a soggy, blubbering mess. When I got home from work, John and Hank were out in the yard. I watched as John gave Hank some directions. They were the opposite of what Hank wanted to do, but he did it anyway. Later, Hank wanted cookies that he thought were on top of the fridge. I showed him a box mix for gluten-free cookies as a substitute, and he smiled and pushed the box to me in his way of saying, “Yes, I would like some cookies, please. Thank you.” He then waited patiently for the cookies to bake, although he did want to peak in the oven a couple of times. He quit asking for the cookies on the fridge. Later, we shared cookies. In a moment when I wasn’t paying attention, he went to the kitchen and returned with two big handfuls of cookies. He had a huge grin on his face because he knew he had gotten something past me. He looked me right in the eye, and I could see the mischievous twinkle and the innate intelligence that resides there. Then we played his new favorite game. It involves him stealing something from right under my nose (which he is extremely good at) and then running away while laughing riotously and glancing back to see if I am giving chase, which I always am. Much tickling ensues.
That night, I was lying in bed enveloped in a rare sense of calm. I imagined my panic button sitting on my bedside table, placed carefully behind the alarm clock so that I wouldn’t accidentally hit it instead of the snooze button. I thought about my evening. It had been so lovely. I had seen something that had not been visible to me for the last six months. I imagine that it was there all along in some degree, but I was incapable of seeing it.
I saw progress. Hank has made progress. He is understanding so much more. He is following directions. He is looking us in the eye more often. He is playing games with us. He is interacting in more meaningful ways. He is as cute and joyful as he has always been, and more so. I saw what I needed to see that night. And trust me, I really needed to see it. It was like food for my soul.
So, my kid has autism. I have a panic button. It is what it is. It is my beautiful life.