For those of you that don't know about certain details of our life, my 13 year old son is severe on the autism spectrum. Non-verbal, but an AMAZINGLY funny and talented little dude. For more of an intro on his story you can read this blog, STRENGTH & COMPASSION
Life has always been hard with autism, for him and for us...but we are entering uncharted territory here--the teenage years.
THE TEENAGE YEARS:
I hear a lot of parents talk about their kids and say things like, "just a few more years and they'll be out of the house and in college." Or they are not fully aware of our situation and say, "at least you had a kid when you were really young, you will be 'done' sooner." But that's not our story. I don't see a time where our son won't need us. He will most likely always need us for the basics--food, going to the bathroom, getting dressed etc. and we assume he will always live with us as long as we can take care of him. I'm not saying that a miracle can't happen where he becomes completely independent of us, but in the foreseeable future, I just can't fathom it. Instead, this seems like the beginning of a new stage; an even harder, more aggressive stage for my son. Now there is: puberty, hormones, wanting independence but not being able to voice or function in the way he desires without our help. I know for him, this has to be so frustrating.
So here's what's new...or at least new, again. Extreme hitting. Not directed to me, my wife, others, just himself. He used to beat his forehead against the floors and walls when he was 2-4 years old. And it stopped--for a minute. (That's when he started smearing his poop everywhere for about 9 years...different blog about the CRAP YEARS one day, I'm sure) But these new teenage emotions have been coming out in a new more powerful, self injurious behavior or (SIB). A lot of special needs kids deal with it, especially in the autism community. While this behavior isn't new to us, the power with which he harms himself, is. Lately, several times a day (some days less than others) he will get overwhelmed, frustrated or has a break in routine and starts slamming his fist into his head, nose or chin repeatedly and with a mighty force. Of course we intervene--run to the 'rescue' and try to stop him, distract him, anything. But he is strong. If I hold his little arms too tightly I could break his arm as he fights me full of adrenaline. *We have a lot of ways we try to prevent and intervene, if you are interested more about that, comment below or email me and I can tell you ways we try to manage SIBs as best as we can...but let's talk about one night in particular:
One of the hardest nights we have had in a long time was on Christmas eve. We had envisioned the candlelight service at our church to be this Instagram-worthy, beautiful moment where we get to share the pinnacle of the season with each other. My wife helped lead the first service, and so at the second service of the night we saw ourselves taking candlelit communion as a family with our sweet community. He loves hearing his mom sing, has been to candlelight services before and this is a community he knows and loves. He is welcomed here, always. Realistically, we knew there would be hiccups, as with any kid there is always a potential bump in the road. But our son had a completely different vision of Christmas Eve. His plans (obviously) were to lay in his bed, play with his iPad, in his footed pajamas all night, and ALONE. As soon as I got him to the car crying and yelling the entire way and shut the doors, I knew we were off to a bad start...
There were so many people at the church that the normal parking spot we go to was taken. As simple as a thing as that sounds with autism routine is key. As we parked in the back and I carried my 5 foot, 90+ pound son up two flights of stairs (that he refused to walk up) I immediately began to question myself, "why I am even going this far?" I ignored myself and thought: Just get him in; once he sees and hears his mom singing it will all be ok. WRONG. He went to the front and started screaming, blowing snot and tears all over his face, and taking his tiny fist, slamming it as hard as he could against his chisled chin. I held his hands against his body as I slowly counted to 10 trying to ground and calm him, but to no avail. We weaved around strategically between chairs that were placed in every overflowing section of our church. I saw looks of sympathy from so many of the members of our church as they could most likely saw defeat painted all over my face. After the grueling hour, the snot and tears stopped for a brief moment to enjoy and take in Silent Night. Three short minutes of peace where I prayed for relief and patience.
IS THE GRASS GREENER?
But that was over as soon as the song and we made the executive decision not to stay for communion service, as the impressive snot-infused meltdown continued all the way to car. Me and my wife were defeated, felt isolated from community, and just bummed. We drove in silence for a bit, frustrated at the outcome. In a cold silence we sat though the screams and wails from the back seat. We almost had huge fight, but we both chose to communicate our desires instead. We both longed for a change in the routine of our life. We wanted life to look different, be less difficult and just to be able to do stuff together! Why is that too much to ask? Parenting comes with more struggles than any book, website or class could ever prepare you for--then it's amped up 100 degrees when your kid is special needs. If we compare all of these terrible moments, to what raising a "normal" child looks like in our head then: the grass will always be greener on the other side. In reality, it's the same grass no matter what side of the field you are living on. We are finding more and more, the key to our happiness is perspective. How we process these types of situations (in the moment and after) will determine how green your grass actually is.
Most people tend to focus on the heaviness of life because thats exactly what it is--heavy. It weighs down our emotions, thought process and reactions. I tend to want to give up more when things get tough, but I have learned first hand: it will never just go away or fix it self. Learning to work through these emotions with my wife, as a family, and as a father helps me realize that the messiness of life can birth joyful purpose and meaning. I believe that a truer clarity comes from processing, rather than suppressing painful emotions and hurts we face on the daily or even from the past. Our son needs us now more than ever to be his support, his caregiver, and his voice. That's why I pray for the grace and patience to be a stronger parent and advocate for him each day.
I dont know what the future holds for my son or what our family atmosphere will look like in the next 5 years, but I do know I will need to rely on that same grace to get me through it one day at a time. I have to stop comparing my struggles with the fantasy of what a "perfect" life could be.
A few hours later my wife sent me the picture above. He had crashed awkwardly on his pillow and was strewn across his bed from hours of crying and hitting. He finally WAS sleeping in heavenly peace...and for us it was not because he was literally asleep (hallelujah), but we had gained a new inward peace. We CAN do this together, one not-so-silent night at a time.