The schoolyard at 3 p.m. seems enjoyable for most. Kids run to their friends after a long day in the classroom and parents seem happy for 15 minutes to chat with each other. Playdates are arranged, soccer cleats are secured on feet and sleepover plans discussed.
For us autism moms, well pick up is a whole different story. I literally give myself a pep talk as I walk from my car. "Whatever he's doing," I tell myself, "It's okay. "He is doing the best he can, and I will be calm, I will be loving and I will be at ease." I repeat this mantra, or some version of it, over and over as I pass first the yellowing grass, then the pebbly path, past the Kindergarten play yard and onto the big yard.
My eye scans the crowd, stopping in the likely spots. Sandbox, no. Spinny swing, no. Climb structure where his sister usually plays, no. Water fountain, no. My eyes scan until I see a boy alone in the far field, miming some indecipherable action for much to long. Bingo. I take a deep breathe. "Calm, peaceful, accepting." I walk hurriedly past groups of his classmates playing tether ball, ball wall, foursquare. I hope they don't see him out there, in a solo miming frenzy. I realize I am holding my breathe, as if I can stop time and keep the school from noticing him as long as I don't breathe. Without relaxing my stride I force myself to exhale. When I am in shouting distance, I begin to call his name, feeling the heat rise to my face. The pantomiming continues. Ugh.
Finally hearing his name he turns, eyes downcast. I try to glare at him, but he sees only the pavement. I force myself to breathe, to wait for his eyes. He takes forever to look up. By the time he does, I have calmed myself down....but not that much. "What were you doing out there," I drill, knowing the question is useless, mean, without a passable answer.
"Pretending to have a lemonade stand," he answers innocently. "By yourself?" I continue. Ugh, why do I harass him like this? "I was playing with Alex (his sister)," he tells me. I glance over to see Alex on the jungle gym with several other girls. I sigh. "We don't play alone at school," I say firmly, sticking with the line we have used since kindergarten. Of course playing alone sometimes is fine, but he cannot distinguish this. Therefor we say school is a time for friends, home is a time for relaxing and being alone.
"Sorry," he offers. I start towards his sister, knowing the rebuke accomplished nothing, changed nothing, taught nothing. He follows, eyes downcast.
We pass a group of his classmates smashing a ball against the handball court. I get my daughter and head towards the parking lot, forcing myself to look up and smile a goodbye at the other moms.
We wind our way off the big yard, past the Kindergarten yard, down the pebble path and across the dying grass. I feel the anger start to rise again into my face. And so I restart my internal pep talk. This time I remind myself to be grateful.
He is healthy. He is beautiful. He is trying so hard. He has come so far. He cuddles with me at night. I love him so dearly. Thank you God for my beautiful son.
Cecily Ruttenberg is a writer and editor who lives in Santa Cruz, California. She is the mother of an eight year old son with high functioning autism.