It’s Hard to Blog an Avalanche

Monday evening Martin and I filling our birdfeeders, in front of the house, when the UPS truck pulled up. My UPS guy and I share a special bond: We’re both New York Rangers fans. We hadn’t talked since June 13, when the Rangers dropped the Stanley Cup finals to the Los Angeles Kings, so we started to chat hockey emotions. Were we heartbroken? Proud? Was this transition season—the Rangers have a new coach—the start of a dynasty? Would we miss Brad Richards?

Martin approached, listened for a second, looked at the UPS guy, and said, “Oh, hi!”

Goodness, I thought. Martin just addressed a stranger, without being prompted. That’s new.

“Hey, little man,” the UPS guy said and patted Martin’s head.

Martin remained while the UPS guy and I finished our conversation. (We will miss Richards! But his time has come!) Then I said to the UPS guy, “All right. Have a good week.”

And Martin said to the UPS guy, “Well, okay, ’bye. See you later.”

Goodness, I thought. Martin just interpreted my social cue and said goodbye, without being prompted. That’s new.

When Martin does something new, and appropriate, and typical, I remind myself to blog. Often I make a note so I’ll remember to write the event. If you’ve been reading this blog a long time, you know about the first time Martin said, “I don’t know,” and the first time Martin interactively shared a toy, and even the first time he understood that my outstretched hand meant I wanted a napkin from him.

The past few weeks have brought so many firsts that blogging them all would be a heavy burden. The firsts are tumbling one atop the other. Thus—

When I brought Martin to playgroup in the City last week, we were late, and his friends were already downstairs. Martin proceeded directly downstairs.

No distraction from the upstairs toys? No direction needed? No dawdling on the steps? That’s a first.

Thursday morning Adrian, fresh from the shower, in a t-shirt and black boxer-briefs, was helping Martin get dressed for school. I overheard this:

“No, Daddy. I don’t want white underwear!”

“What’s wrong with white underwear?”

“I want to wear black underwear, like you. And black socks, too.”

Noticing what Daddy is wearing? Wanting the same for himself? First.

This weekend Martin was in our pool when I asked if he wanted some water. He replied, “No, I’ll have a drink when I’m done swimming.”

Providing more information than I asked for? Thinking ahead? First.

Sunday my brother Eddie was visiting to watch the USAPortugal World Cup match. When Jermaine Jones scored in the 64th minute, tying the game 1-1, Eddie leapt to his feet and whooped. Martin, startled, covered his ears with a pained expression. Then he looked at me, lowered his hands, giggled, and said, “Oh, that scared me!”

Checking my face for reassurance? Immediately recovering from a sensory overload? Laughing at himself? Unsolicited emotion sharing? First, first, first, first.

Seventeen minutes later, Clint Dempsey scored, giving USA a 2-1 lead. Eddie whooped again. Adrian jumped in happiness. I lifted Martin, used my right arm to hold him on my hip, and ran around the family room thrusting my left fist in the air as I shouted, “Yes! Yes! Yes! Yes!”

As I recovered, I realized that Martin, still on my hip, was thrusting his itty fist into the air and shouting, “Yes! Yes! Yes! Yes!”

Independent participation? Imitation just for the heck of it? Not quite a first, but close enough—never before so vivid, or so immediate.

(Better not to ask what happened when Portugal’s Verela scored in the final minute of stoppage, preventing USA from clinching an early second-round berth.)

Monday afternoon Martin and his friend Christopher were in a children’s waiting room, ostensibly overseen by Christopher’s older brother, Benjamin, while I met with Christopher’s mother. When I entered the waiting room, Martin and Christopher were wrestling, gleefully, amidst a pile of toys as Benjamin laughed.

“What on earth are you two doing?” I asked.

Martin looked up from under Christopher and replied, “We’re banging and yelling!”

I assumed Benjamin had accused the younger boys of this. I asked, “Who is banging, and who is yelling?”

Martin said, “I’m banging, and he’s yelling.” Then he returned to struggling with Christopher.

Fully interactive play? Answering questions even while epically distracted? Pretty darn new.

Fifteen minutes later, Martin and I were driving home when he read aloud the name of Steely Dan’s “My Old School” from the radio screen. I took the opportunity for conversation and asked Martin the name of his old school, his preschool. He responded correctly. I followed up by asking which he prefers, his old school or his new school (his kindergarten).

“My new school.”

“Why do you prefer your new school?”

“But because I learn better there.”

Expressing a legitimate preference, and backing it up with a reason? First. Not to mention—I do think he’s learning better in kindergarten. His kindergarten really targets his needs in a way that preschool did not.

On New Year’s Day, I sensed that 2014 would be extraordinary. The banner year may indeed have arrived:

This past month has comprised an avalanche of firsts. I could go on and on. But I will address just one more, the evolution getting on the school bus. In just two weeks, we’ve progressed from me carrying Martin’s backpack and leading him by the hand down the driveway to the bus; to me carrying Martin’s backpack and coaxing him to follow me down the driveway; to me carrying Martin’s backpack and accompanying him as he walks without protest to the school bus; to Martin carrying his own backpack while I follow him; and finally to Martin walking down the driveway, alone, backpack on, and boarding the school bus while I wave from the front step. If I even try to follow Martin, I get a swift, “No, Mommy. You wait here!”

Am I proud? I’m darned proud.

And sorry.

I mean, Martin’s bus driver is also a Rangers fan.

I miss the morning hockey chit-chat.

On another occasion, Martin (right) with Christopher's big brother, Benjamin.

On another occasion, Martin (right) with Christopher’s big brother, Benjamin.

Second of Three Firsts: The Boys’ Bathroom (in a Bouncy-House Place)

Martin and I spent Holy Week/Passover in Texas, visiting my parents. Away from home, Martin had fewer friends and activities to occupy him, so when I wasn’t dumping him on my parents—I mean, letting my mother and stepfather enjoy time with their grandson—I resorted to visiting an “inflatable play zone.”

In lay person’s terms, an “inflatable play zone” might be called a “bouncy-house emporium,” or “hell.” It is a large, undivided space (think high-ceilinged hotel conference room, or big-box store) filled with blow-up castles, mazes, slides, in which kids can jump and climb to exhaustion. In an inflatable play zone, you hear a constant whirr from the machines pumping air, a sound as if you were in an airplane. A gigantic airplane with screaming children in sensory overload. An airplane with nothing to occupy you other than watching the screaming children in sensory overload.

One afternoon Martin and I set out for the “Extreme Fun” bouncy-house place, in north Austin. My parents were due for a few hours’ break, having watched Martin all morning while I enjoyed a massage at the local spa. My brother Rudy, who was visiting Texas from California, at first agreed to accompany us but then mysteriously realized he needed to “work” on “a project for a friend,” so Martin and I were alone.

We reached our destination, disembarked my parents’ Highlander, crossed the parking lot, and discovered a note stating that, after seven years’ business, Extreme Fun had shuttered its doors.

Fancy that.

I brought Martin back to the car and, seeking to prevent a tantrum, launched into my speech about disappointment. “Oh, that’s a disappointment. Let’s think: Should we cry? Should we—”

At this point, ten seconds into the disappointment discourse, Martin cut me off and said:

“Is there another bouncy-house place around here?”

Holy cow, that was a good question. A good, appropriate question, expressed perfectly, without whining or tears. Even the intonation flowed.

A question like that deserves reward. I pulled out my iPhone and searched for another bouncy-house place. After Google Mapping the choices, I restarted the Highlander and drove us half an hour west to the “Hoppin’ House” in Lakeway, Texas.

The Hoppin’ House turned out to be a pleasant facility with eight or ten inflatables and a foam-cube pit. We stayed for more than an hour. At no point was more than one other family present, so Martin had his run of the place.

After a while Martin needed a potty break. The boys’ and girls’ bathrooms, child-size, sat side-by-side. I held Martin’s hand and opened the door to the girls’ room, so I could enter with him.

Martin pulled back. He asked, “Is this the bathroom for little boys?”

He poses that question, or some variety of it, often. I responded, as usual, that it was the bathroom for mommies and their children, and that the other one was for daddies and their children.

Martin pulled back again. He looked at the other door, as if contemplating.

I’d never let Martin use a public restroom alone. He gets so easily distracted. Who knows what might go on once the door shuts? Bathrooms are so germy. He would put his hands on everything. And he doesn’t like to do “stand-up peepees.” He would sit on the toilet, and let me tell you, I can barely manipulate those flimsy seat covers. It ain’t gonna happen for Martin.

Still, there he was, gazing upon the boys’ room. I’d been in the girls’ room earlier. It was tiny; in the same-sized boys’ room, there couldn’t have been more than two stalls, and probably no urinals. (I loathe urinals.) The bathroom had one exit, and we were the only ones in the vicinity, so I could lurk outside the door without feeling foolish.

It was like with Justin, our next-door neighbor, and babysitting: If I was ever going to let Martin use a public restroom alone, this set-up was darn close to perfect.

“Martin,” I asked, “would you like to go in the boys’ room?”

Without hesitation, Martin said yes. He didn’t smile. He looked courageous, determined, as he disappeared inside.

I waited. I don’t know how long I waited. Long enough that I thought Martin should be done peeing. Then I cracked open the door and peered into the bathroom.

Martin, who didn’t notice the intrusion, was washing his hands. At home, he protests against washing his hands, or loses focus and makes faces in the mirror instead, or runs out of the bathroom and claims he must use the kitchen sink. In the public bathroom, he was nothing but business. I watched him rinse those little hands and grab a paper towel to dry.

I shut the door so he wouldn’t know that I’d checked up on him.

Moments later Martin emerged. I exclaimed, “You did it! You went in the bathroom by yourself!” and threw my arms around him while praising the big-boy deed. Martin seemed uninterested in my praise. He said he was thirsty and asked for a bottle of water.

To Martin, I guess, using the boys’ room alone was no big deal.

Check that one off the list.

Martin, climbing above the foam-cube pit. Sorry about the photo quality; I was kind of balancing on the edge of the pit as I snapped pictures.

Martin, climbing above the foam-cube pit. Sorry about the photo quality; I was kind of balancing on the edge of the pit as I snapped pictures.

Martin heading up a slide. Sometimes I want to follow him onto these things. They look fun.

Martin heading up a slide. Sometimes I want to follow him onto these things. They look fun.

Slow-Motion Childhood

Autism is not a “blessing.” My son’s illness did not “happen for a reason.” I just don’t see the world that way.

But I do have the wherewithal to extract the positives where I can find them.

I could not have written that last post if I weren’t paying attention. Paying attention to everything, that is. Noticing Martin’s ups. Trying not to dwell on his downs. Celebrating imitation and inference-drawing as if he’d graduated Harvard.

Recovering from autism is like navigating childhood in slow motion. Martin achieves only gradually skills that neurotypical kids acquire in a flash and as a matter of course. My only child is on the spectrum, so I don’t know this for sure, but—I suspect that parents of neurotypicals may overlook tiny changes when they occur. They probably don’t keep calendars to mark when their children first pucker and blow bubbles.

Adrian and I see every momentum shift.

And years from now, when Martin is a surly teenager who rejects us in favor of his friends, we’ll be able to celebrate the event as our own special victory.

How many parents can say that?

I’ll Have What He’s Having

Well, this was bound to happen sooner or later.

Sunday afternoon Adrian and Martin sat at our kitchen counter, awaiting their respective lunches.

I served Martin’s plate first: cold chai rooibus tea, Raghoo Farms duck breast, and green beans sautéed in the duck fat. Martin picked up his fork to stab some duck.

Adrian’s plate arrived next: filtered water, one ounce of Hemlock Hill cheddar, “exotic rice toast” with Thai red rice and flaxseeds, pecan halves, and a peeled Satsuma orange divided by sections.

Martin took one look at Adrian’s more colorful meal, set down his fork, and said, “I want that.”

“That’s Daddy’s lunch, Sweetheart,” I said. “Your lunch is over here.”

“I want Daddy’s lunch.”

We’ve witnessed harbingers, over the past few weeks, of Martin’s nascent interest in food other than his own: longing stares at the fruit bowl, requests for “cookie crackers with crunchies” (a/k/a flour-free seed crackers, nut butter, and bee pollen) instead of parsley-tarragon-and-quail-egg frittata.  The signs, however, were few and easily covered by distraction, and Martin’s teacher tells us that he still never reaches for his classmate’s lunches.

Sunday was the first time Martin made a direct request for someone else’s food. I’m happy for the developmental milestone—the interest in what others are doing, and the desire to break routine. But the trend, if it continues, will pose new challenges for me. Up until now, Martin has been satisfied with what I put in front of him, and only that.

As for Sunday, it was mustard to the rescue. Martin is in a mustard phase; anything with mustard becomes instantly more appealing. (This includes delights like mustard on turkey bacon or mustard in buckwheat cereal.) After he requested Daddy’s lunch, I slapped my forehead, exclaimed, “Oh my gosh, I forgot the most important part!”, and made a big show of squirting stone-ground mustard onto the duck breast. This demonstration held Martin’s attention while Adrian quietly picked up his own plate and slipped away to his desk to eat, removing the temptation.

One incident managed.

Many more to come.