“Do they hurt?” A frustrated mom of four snaps at her tween boy. He looks thoughtfully down at the shoes on his feet and takes a bit too long to respond. “Do they hurt?” She hisses as she grabs his bicep and squeezes. He’s taller than her but very thin. He doesn’t respond so she shoves him a little when she releases her grip. “Sorta.” He replies with a half smile. His face is so much younger looking than his gangly frame portrays. Red cheeks, red ears, pale face. He's itching his arms.
He flaps a little.
“Good!” The mom says, as she yanks a shoe off his foot throwing him off balance. “Maybe, if they hurt, you will learn to stop walking on your toes and walk normal! It’s sad that this is what it takes don’t you think?” She answers herself, “Yep. Very sad, Tim.” She throws both shoes in her shopping cart and rolls her eyes at him. He’s looking at her with that same faint smile but he doesn’t say anything. Quickly as if something in his brain told him it was the right thing to do, he drops his head down and focuses on the task of getting his old shoes back on his feet. He stares at his awkward fingers, willing them to act. I can almost hear the misfiring neurons, so few actually reaching their intended destination. “Okay…you can do this. Pull the strap, pull the strap, something happens when I pull the strap, come on…” He’s moving at a snail’s pace. God, I want to help him with that Velcro before she opens her mouth again. I’m genuinely afraid I might deck her. This is my Target, my happy place. It would be very bad if that happened.
Given my own current situation, three small kids, one with autism (the hyper-run-into-traffic-high-pitch-scream-and-disrobe-in-public kind) I tend to have empathy in abundance for parents in discipline mode. Not in this case. Tim is still laboring away at the shoes when the other three kids start acting up. This is his fault, too. “Would you come on? We don't have all day.” She yells as she takes off with the younger kids leaving him to catch up on his own. “Gawd, this is ridiculous, Tim, you push me, you really push me.” She mutters under her breath. He runs after her yelling too loud, “Mommy! Wait!” his shoes still not properly fastened, arms flailing, smile beaming.
Later that same afternoon I take my daughter to the dentist. I’m sitting in the waiting room when a handsome dad with salt and pepper hair walks in with his two sons. He’s got money. His great watch and supple Cole Haan butterscotch driving moccasins tell me so. I remember the days. I drove my husband’s Jag to this appointment, I remind myself, as if things are not that bad. Who cares, though? Honestly, I don't. Stuff holds a different place in my life now and any part of my thought life devoted to it seems like precious time wasted. What I miss is the silliness associated with luxury. Reading for pleasure. Shopping trips with friends, long lingering wine lunches discussing newspaper headlines, people we know, travel plans. The mindless passage of time. Frivolity. Meaningless fun. It all seems terribly self-indulgent, when there is so much work to be done. Besides, our travel plans always involve Houston or New York, the only two places on this entire planet where my son can get proper treatment for his complex bowel disease and metabolic issues. The conditions we wacky autism moms "make up" according to the media and pharmaceutical lawyers. Too many kids are getting sick and dying for me to care about the next trunk show at Nordstrom's. Maybe I’ll care again, I think almost outloud, as I look down at my Merona jeans and Cherokee flip flops from Target. Doubt it.
Handsome Rich Dad’s older son invades my personal space pulling me out of my introspection. “Calvin, sit down.” The dad says, in a tone eerily reminiscent of Target Mom. He is much more sophisticated than her, but his demeanor says it all. Calvin. Better. Sit. But he doesn’t. Calvin paces with his Nintendo DS and seems to be growing increasingly agitated. Dad admonishes, “you are going to have to sit on the floor or sit in a chair but you are not going to sit by me.” The younger son took the only available chair next to his dad and the two are cozily settling in to read a book. Calvin side glances at his dad and younger brother. I know with all that I am I saw a flash of anguish on that boy’s face. He runs across the room and slams his body onto the floor between a coat rack and a Legoland play table. Calvin is about 12. I'm guessing he doesn't speak much. He alternates his attention between the legos and his DS. He groans. Dad ignores him while he reads a paragraph to his younger son. “Now it’s a strange word choice here,” he explains in an entirely different and almost whimsical voice, “exposition…what do you think it means in this context?” He sounds so patient and loving. The younger son is attentive and smart, a good student. Dad rubs the younger son’s shoulder while he tries to figure out the meaning.
“Calvin!” The hygienist yells as she opens the door. “Any changes in his teeth dad?” she asks. “No,” he responds flatly. “He’s just the same as before.” Calvin takes the time to put every single Lego back in place. It takes awhile. Impatient silence fills the tiny waiting room. “Hi Calvin,” the hygienist sort of whispers, almost to herself, it seems. Not at all the toothy, enthusiastic welcome imparted on my daughter just moments before. “You can't have that DS in there, give it to me.” Dad reaches out his open hand and waggles it in the air. Calvin is nowhere near him yet so this motion is premature. Always such a disappointment, that Calvin. It occurs to me that dad bears a striking resemblance to Patrick Bergin in the movie, Sleeping with the Enemy. He grabs the DS from his son who lumbers dutifully behind the hygienist. I decide a letter is in order.
Dear Target Mom and Handsome Rich Dad,
You don’t know me. I had a chance to witness your conduct with your kids today and I would like to take a moment to talk to you about it. First, Target Mom, Tim is a spectrum kid. You may or may not know this. Your treatment of him lead me to believe you were unaware. Please do not take his behavior personally. Tim’s odd behavior has absolutely nothing to do with you. He is doing the best he can. Might I say, in the three minutes I had to observe your family, he is doing remarkably well and maintaining an incredibly positive attitude. Tim does not wake up every morning thinking, “How can I really piss off mom today?” Quite the contrary, Tim wakes up every morning and thinks, “How can I do better? I know I can it’s just that I am so different. Why is everything so much harder for me than everyone else? Why is mom so angry all the time?” Tim is medically ill. I know, your doctor didn’t tell you. He never will. Mine didn’t either. There are about 100 reasons for this but I can’t go into that now. You have to get him help. I will include some resources at the end of this letter that will help you get started. Right now I need you to go to your son. Here is what you are going to tell him. “Son, I am very sorry. Sometimes mom has a hard time understanding why you do what you do. I have been very hard on you. Sure, I knew something was wrong. But no one would confirm it for me. I knew. In my heart of hearts, I knew (because I know you do, mom). But today is a new day. I am going to work on controlling my anger because I am the adult. From now on we are going to work on getting you better.” Please give him a big hug and tell him you love him. He desperately needs to hear it. All good? I truly hope so. Because if I ever see you treat Tim like that again I swear to God I will lay you out flat. I’m Irish and from Detroit. I promise you, you do not want a piece of this.
You’re next Handsome Rich Dad. I betcha Calvin is a real handful. He can be defiant, difficult and downright violent at times? Gotta tell you, I am legitimately concerned I am going to be reading about Calvin in the news in the not so distant future. “Local teen takes own life. Parents say he had ADHD, struggled with language, had a hard time making friends.” “He was a loner.” Neighbors say. Calvin is sick, too. Kids who are healthy don’t act like Calvin. I get the idea your dreams for Calvin have died. But younger son…younger son is where it’s at. That would be fine if Calvin was dead. You treating him as if he is, does not make it so. Please wake up and realize you have another son who needs you. Here is what you are going to tell him. “Son, I don’t know what I have to do to make things right but I am willing to try. Maybe you are sick, do you feel sick? I don’t think I’ve asked you that before. I often assume you don’t understand what I am saying. From now on I will presume intellect. I will presume you are a thinking rational being with likes, dislikes, wants and desires. Let’s both figure out how you are feeling and what happens in your body when you are acting out. It’s okay if it takes you a long time to find the words to express it. I will be patient. I am going to try very hard to be patient from now on. I love you, son. I want you to have your own dreams and I want to help you find a way to achieve them. I am very sorry for how I have acted toward you.” Calvin's dream might be collecting every silly band ever made. He is Calvin, not Handsome Rich Dad. I know he doesn’t fit your image of what your life should be. You are practically wearing a sandwich board advertising this painful fact. And Calvin knows it. It’s really important that you understand Calvin’s deficits are not your deficits. Your plans, your life, everything…has changed. You must adjust. I am not saying it is easy. I am saying it is necessary.
In closing, I need both of you to listen closely. Put your big girl panties on and man up. Quit feeling sorry for yourselves. WE NEED YOU. When you take the time to figure out why your kids are hurting and what has to be done to get them better you're both going to get frightfully mad again. Not like poor-me-my-life-is-so-hard mad. Like, Vietnam-vet-with-agent-orange mad. Righteous anger. This is good. Anger can be productive when it is appropriately directed. Take the focus off your boys' weaknesses and focus on their healing and their strengths. Research. Research. Research.
Go to USAAutism.org and you'll discover a variety of resources that are readily available to you. Join AIM, Autism Is Medical to find out what kind of medical help is available for your kids. You will find copious amounts of scientific studies that will help you understand what is happening in your children's bodies. Join the Canary Party and get involved. You’ll find everything you need to know and meet thousands of parents seeking the truth and healing for their children. You are not alone. Make a commitment to end the suffering in your own family and prevent it from happening to others. At the very least, from this day forward, hate the autism, not the child.
Best, LJ Goes
LJ Goes is Managing Partner of The Misuta Project, LLC., Contributing Editor to Age of Autism, and Executive Board Member of the Illinois Canary Party.