I hear it all the time. When your kids get older you will look back on the toddler days and wish for the simplicity of the problems back then. A cup of warm milk can solve many of the problems a toddler experiences. A bumped head, a lost toy or just feeling tired. A hug from mom and a distraction are surefire ways to remedy most things at my house. Yesterday that changed.

We were having our routine ABA therapy session yesterday morning. Oliver is due for another assessment so his therapist was gushing over how much progress he has made in the last six months. It’s amazing!, she says. Look at his vocab, his skills at requesting things he needs, his ability to calm himself in stressful situations. It’s awesome! Of course, I was thrilled for multiple reasons. Obviously him making progress is good for him and our family. I have selfish reasons too. I’ve been feeling really done with all the therapy. 25 hours a week is getting really old. I’ve been daydreaming about the day that we can just have our freedom to do whatever we want without so many scheduling restraints. I made a joke, ‘That means there’s an end in sight, right?’ Wink, wink, nudge nudge. Yes we’re closer, but he’s still scoring some zeros in the social skills section. She showed me her computer and scrolled down the column. I thought, wow, that is a lot of zeros, but that’s ok. Social skills take time and school will surely help with that. We moved on with our day and I was feeling great. Oliver was off to school and Max was napping for once. I leisurely watched the news while I played games on my phone. I could get used to this! Oliver came home and we began with the evening therapy session. The kids were playing outside with a little neighbor girl. I was carving a pumpkin on the porch. It was a picture perfect evening.

It got a bit cold so we migrated into the house. The kids were running around playing chase, screaming and having a grand old time. Oliver decided to grab his megalodon shark and chase the neighbor girl with it. She screamed and told him that the shark was too scary for her. She wanted to go upstairs and play cats. Now, normally Oliver would be totally fine. He would either stay downstairs to play sharks or he would follow her upstairs to play cats. This time he did something I wasn’t prepared for. He dropped the shark, hung his head and went into my bedroom. How odd, I thought. I waited for minute to see if he would come out. He didn’t. I walked in to find him sitting on my bed facing the wall. He wasn’t sobbing, slow tears were running down his face. ‘Wow, Oliver you look sad. Can you tell me what’s going on?’ I’m used to prompting him with emotions because he’s not super good at expressing himself. He responded with the most clearly articulated sentence I have ever heard him use. ‘I’m upset because she doesn’t want to play with me. She doesn’t want to be my friend.’ I didn’t think it was possible to have simultaneous emotions on opposite ends of the spectrum until that moment. On one hand I was happy to see him express himself so plainly. I was happy to see that his brain is developing and becoming more complicated, more on par with his peers. At the same time I was crushed to see his heart broken. I haven’t ever seen him get his feelings hurt like that. I knew it would be hard to watch your kids go through painful situations, but not this hard. I tried desperately to explain to him that she does want to be your friend and that she was just afraid of the shark. He either didn’t understand or he didn’t believe me. I couldn’t tell which one. Max and the girl came to talk to him, to invite him to play, but he couldn’t recover. She went home and I held him on my lap, rocking in the chair, explaining that it’s ok to be sad while tears just streamed down his face. It was heart wrenching for me.

This is autism. It’s the constant misinterpretation of social cues. I didn’t know his inability could be so obvious at such a young age. The difference between Max and Oliver in social situations is so stark it’s shocking sometimes. It was bittersweet to watch Max at just 3 years old navigate the situation with such ease. He saw Oliver get upset and began telling the friend that they need to find his blanket. They gathered up his blanket, his tablet and his Godzilla. Max brought it to him and asked Oliver if he was feeling happier. Oliver said no so Max gave him a hug. I didn’t teach him any of this. He just watches and learns. Max plays so effortlessly with friends older or younger. People have a really easy time connecting with him because he’s funny and smart. He understands slang and nuanced conversation. I watch while friends treat Max like a peer and Oliver like a baby. It just breaks my heart in such complicated ways. I don’t feel prepared for this phase. I’m good at warming up milk, making funny faces, playing Mario games and acting like Godzilla. I have no idea how to help soothe heartbreak, build confidence and help deal with insecurity. How am I going to get through this? This is just the beginning of many situations that will come up for the foreseeable future. I know I can’t keep pain from my kids. I just hope I’m steady enough to help them when life will inevitably happen to them.

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