Ben’s mother is in Los Angeles this week, so 24-year-old Ben and I are doing double duty. I promised to water her urban garden: chili peppers, onions, and tomatoes grown in pots near an alley lot behind our city center condo. On the way back from breakfast at Taco Bueno, I see the garden and remember my promise. Ben and I are a few minutes ahead of schedule. Watering the garden together could be a good chance to squeeze in something different and fun with my pre-verbal ASD son.
But it was not.
I turn on the water and hand him the hose. Why does he stand frozen in place, as if in fear? Does the sound of splashing water trigger his hyperacusis, or does it fascinate him? Does he not understand that the water should go on the plants, not on the concrete? That when the water is not reaching the plant, you move toward the pot, not away from it? That you control the arch of the water by raising the nozzle? I am impatient. A task to which I had allotted ten minutes could take an hour or more. This plant’s bucket is overflowing, and it’s time to move on to the next one, but Ben is immobile, shut down. I physically push him forward. He pushes back. I yell at him. I hate what I am doing.
Back in the condo, Ben crawls into bed and pulls the blankets over his head. I should be fired. Then who would teach Ben, now that after two decades of therapy he is teachable? I’ve been watering gardens since I was a toddler. This may be Ben's first. There is so much to teach, so much to learn when you're starting from behind, tending a garden and a son.
Dan E. Burns, Ph.D., is Adult Issues Liaison for AutismOne and the author of Saving Ben: A Father's Story of Autism. Burns is developing the Autism Trust USA, modeled on The Autism Trust (U.K.) and focused on the creation of new campus communities where adults with autism can work, live and improve their skills and talents in a creative and supportive environment.