It was a crisp Fall Sunday morning and we optimistically thought it would be nice to visit this big city park that we had not been to with the kids since they were babies and have them wander around in the fresh air, hike through the woods, find the big pond, see the ducks, pick up lots of beautiful leaves and generally have fun. We could tell that from the moment Johnny woke up that he was teetering towards being in a mood which could mean lots of anxiety challenges and near red zone meltdown moments. One of the clues is when he has to fix something or he starts to treasure some objects and he has to collect all of them no matter what. He will get emotional and have tears but it’s not about the fact that he can’t pick up every single hazelnut that’s in the forest which we all know would be impossible. Its because he’s had a long hard week or just too much fun and he has reached the end of his rope. Its now all about getting another hazelnut to somehow feel better. What do we now when we want to explore the park?
I try to tell him that we need to leave some hazelnuts for the squirrels. That answer is not good enough and he doesn’t want to be done. He wants to just keep picking up all the hazelnuts and when Johnny gets an idea in his head it can get very hard to change his mind because he is one determined little boy. This is just who he is whether he has Autism or not. Autism is affecting his ability to move on and to stop doing this repetitive task (because it feels good) and to step away from doing something so focused (because it feels good.) I take a deep breathe and remember that this is when I have to remember to “read the tea leaves.” He is using a coping strategy that makes him feel better. The challenging part for me is trying to get him to know when his coping strategy has come to an end and that it’s time to move on and everything is going to be okay. This is easier said then done but it doesn’t help when you want to go on a nice big walk in the forest on a beautiful fall day. The wind is blowing all the trees, the leaves are changing color and yet you are stuck near the entrance of the park as your son begins to think that he has to pick up every single hazelnut to feel better.
If it was just Johnny, his Daddy and myself then I would just take a deep breathe and wait it out until he was done. I’d let him sit on the forest floor with his bag and let him try and gather as many nuts as he could carry. But I can’t. I look over and I see our 4 year old daughter Princess, who just wants to run around in the leaves, collect leaves, go to the playground for little bit, then hike through the woods. When I look over at her, I see the look on her face that says she doesn’t like to see her brother like this and she knows that things could go sideways pretty fast. She’s been on this journey with us from the day she was born. The journey of having your older brother who you love to bits happen to be Autistic too. How many times has she had to wait it out with us?
I know I need to the parent that each of my children needs at this very moment.
Silently as I look her in the eye and make a silent promise to her that we will get her beloved brother to move and he will be okay and will join her for a hike in the woods.
What did we do?
We gave Johnny some verbal reminders about what we actually came here for and I help him collect a bunch of hazelnuts and stick them into his the side pockets of his cargo pants so he can feel them rubble around in there as he walks. I gently try to get him to get up and run over to the playground. Its nearby and giving his body some much-needed hard work climbing going up and down slides and going on the swings is very good medicine for him. It will reset his body, give him the other kinds of sensory feedback he is craving and give him lots of fun to boot.
The good news is in the end after I thought I needed a “refill” in the patience department we ended up having a nice wander in the woods for the next 2 hours, lunch at a restaurant in the park and another hour walk out of the park but through the woods. It was not easy by a long shot but its not up to me to share the blow by blows of Johnny’s hard moments. Its “his” hard moments and one day I want him to read all of this and know that we tried to figure it out with him and we tried our best to have patience when he needed it the most. I’m glad we didn’t give up on our plans but helped Johnny cope and get to where he needed to be and be able to have a wonderful day with our daughter too.
Before we leave the park we decide to have an early dinner in the park’s restaurant. We pick a quiet corner near a window. I look out and I thought I saw a lady bending to tie her shoe on a path nearby. Wait a second she is not getting up but shuffling along like you would do if you were working in your garden. She has a bag and is searching for something. I look further and realize that she is trying to fill her bag with hazelnuts. The waitress comes to the table with drinks and says, “I keep seeing people with bags picking up all the hazelnuts everyday. I wonder what they are doing with them all.” Luckily, Johnny was now trying to tell his Daddy about something he saw when we entered the restaurant and that he wanted to go see so he missed what she said. Its nice to be able to escape a potentially challenging situation especially as we wait for our dinner.