It was a typical, suburban day at my local grocery store. Besides loading up on Mad Housewife wine, I had other highly important plans: channeling the wisdom of Pavlov on aisle 12 as I held up a bag of Skittles — think mad housewife becomes mad scientist. What can I say? An autism mom often reaches new heights (or is it lows?) to help her child step outside of his self-imposed postage stamp zone of perceived safety.
In case conducting Pavlov experiments isn’t in your shopping repertoire, allow me to explain. You see, my oldest son, at the age of nine, developed some intense fears at our local grocery store. Despite uneventful years of happy grocery shopping experiences up until that time, he one day became dramatically frightened over the thunder sound in produce when the water sprayers came on; not much later the mooing cow contraption by the dairy section also became off limits to him.
While I found the cow annoying as I imagined it was dropping hints as I pounded by with my thunderous thighs, my son began to experience it and the thunder sounds as catastrophic. Mind you, my son could theoretically sing and dance in a field of real cows in the middle of a torrential rain storm interspersed with thunder and lightning (some days I imagined that would be a fun escape for me, like an invigorating and enchanted spa retreat); however, the faux thunder and cow mooing at our store? Not a chance! If you were expecting to find logic and autism charmingly linked hand in hand, carrying a prescribed rule book of its do’s and don’ts, think again oh naïve, knowledge-seeking, autism grasshopper!
So after a few episodes of my son loudly lamenting, while others gawked, wailing and occasionally jumping up and down in mad-like stomping by bushels of lettuce and 2-for-1 pints of strawberries (and my own rebellious fantasies of chugging Mad Housewife wine and joining him), I adapted to a new, albeit unusual routine. While he remained unattended on the cereal aisle,eventually ruling out a majority of aisles as “too close,” I madly dashed through various aisles like a crazed woman on an errant bumper car (highly important, guilt-reducing author note: 1. He was not a flight risk by this age,2. His ability to yell would have the Vegas odds makers betting the house and their mother’s heirloom diamond wedding ring and daddy’s gold tooth that he wouldn’t be disturbed by menacing kidnappers, and 3. Yes, I was quick and had the bruised cart of fruit to prove it).
Wishing to rid my son of this phobia, I pondered. How hard could it be to break? A few weeks or … gasp, months? Talk about a naïve and foolishly hopeful grasshopper! With good intentions, I tried numerous “quick fixes” that included the aforementioned Pavlov experiment. As I held up a bag of Skittles, I hoped to tempt my son to walk further down the aisle and around the corner where he would have to face the dreaded cow moo. I didn’t understand at the time that Pavlov is no match for Autism; it’s like approaching Fort Knox imagining that you can pick the locks open with an unfolded paper clip.
“I can’t Mom! I can’t!” echoed down that aisle. There was another echo entangled with his that only I could hear — the primal scream within: “I want to save you, and I don’t know how.”
So why put myself and son through this ordeal? After all, I could have simply picked another grocery store to avoid such encumbrances, or left him at home. However, autism was not limited to a store; it was pitching its grenades across numerous settings leading to school dismissals and panic attacks across parks, malls, restaurants, movie theaters and even our own back yard. Siblings grew more embarrassed and frustrated; a spouse tried to support but often was away on business, leaving far too much time for me to ponder: If I couldn’t get him over the faux thunder and cow sounds at our local grocery store, what hope did I have to help him navigate the fears of the “real” world? No, I could not bear to let the doors of our grocery store be closed to my son; they became my symbolic battleground.
One day, I ran into a neighbor who mentioned she saw my son elsewhere in the store. Hmm, I wonder if she saw him talking to himself, flapping his hands and/or holding his ears? What would she think? How do I explain? Letting down my humor and sarcasm guard, I timidly shared of his unusual store fears. She inexplicably burst into laughter. Had I been in the autism world so long that the typical world was no longer fathomable to me? Sometimes it felt like I might as well be speaking Swahili as imparting understanding to those outside this world was a communication gulf I found terribly hard to cross.
I wish I could say that I delivered a witty and let-me-put-you-in-your-place-and-give-you-an-education-oh-unfeeling-and-shallow-one retort (or was I just too sensitive?). No, I quietly moved away from her, retrieved my son, and promptly retreated at home to lie on my bed to cry … cry for my son I wished to save and cry for myself … I needed saving too. Unfortunately I skipped the “Noble Autism Parent Warrior” class in college, and I endlessly punished myself for missing out on it secrets to maintaining optimistic gusto in what felt like constant heartache.
After a period of emotionally healthy and vivid fantasies of sporting Army fatigues and wielding a BB gun to launch a late night infiltration to take out a thunder and cow machine, i.e. Operation Thunder Shock and Cow Tipping Awe, not to mention comical ways I imagined piping in thunder and mooing sounds on a continuous nighttime feed into my lovely neighbor’s bedroom (how hilarious!!), I remained entirely calm, rational, and composed during this jaunt down Mad Housewife shopping lane.
I was mired in helplessness intertwined with another uncomfortable feeling: embarrassment. I longed to just feel normal and dispense with such unusual and heartrending challenges. How about one of these problems? “Johnny didn’t make the varsity football team!” “Susie lost student council by one vote!” Was it possible to love a child with an accepting heart yet also crave normalcy? Did that mean I was judging him? Did that make me a less than ideal mother? It’s safe to say that guilt, loneliness, and conflicting emotions were also piled into my grocery cart.
Guided by a group of insightful and loving therapists, progress was made in countless ways outside the store as my son gradually gained greater self awareness, learning to find more productive ways to cope and problem solve through a host of issues; over time we even found a school that added more happy and meaningful moments to his life. Sometimes I still wished for a guru to arrive with the wand-waving plan to save my son, but over time I got better at steadying the ebb and flow of my hopeful longings, and grounded myself in the daily pursuit of slowly, lovingly, and patiently working to ease my son’s experience of the world, savoring even the smallest of gains. Through the process, I had to work on myself as I frustratingly often felt like autism tormented me by perpetually moving me back to the starting line with a blank slate, cast into an arrested state of the naïve and yearning grasshopper, struggling to surmount my own crippling “thunder and cow” fear: You don’t have what it takes. You aren’t strong enough. You’re failing your son.
Autism, like life in general, eventually revealed through its rigorous curriculum that I was on a pathway with my son and family, one different than what I would have chosen, but a pathway none the less that was a part of life’s natural rhythm to mold, instruct, and enlighten, bringing us to a location more profound and meaningful than where we began. Who was I to question the form in which such a gift of emotional and spiritual growth was delivered? And if I insisted on answers as to why my son had to suffer in such a way, I came to understand that I would be a part of a disgruntled, long line for the rest of my life waiting at an earthly door that would never open; autism didn’t make me any particular stand-out when it came to feeling the unfairness of life. And how misguided to expect that others or myself should have the answers to all of life’s perplexing challenges?
After a long spell of simply avoiding the fearful areas of our store, my son, under the influence of what I darkly called “Cheech and Chong’s End of the Road Elixirs,” agreed to sit on a bench that viewed the produce area. As the thunder sound erupted, my son, red-eyed and forlorn, looked at me with tears running down his face. Walking out he said:
“I don’t ever want to walk in this store again; it’s awful. Don’t make me, okay Mom?”
Was love and acceptance winning or was autism winning? I wasn’t sure, but I honored the wishes of my son, no longer displaying the cherub face of a boy when this fear began, but now a teenager with a deeper voice and emerging facial hair.
If I could reach for the perfect tool out of my life’s tool box, it would be reflection — the constant talking through fears, set-backs and triumphs in a supportive, nonjudgmental way. Through reflection, a family found grace together, and I came to understand my own power and driving force — love. Lacking the hoped-for eloquence and perfection at times, but now interwoven with greater kindness to self and more realistic expectations, love’s power grew exponentially as it sang a song that had always been in play, a song in which a heart and intellect could now not only hear, but could also finally believe in the beauty of its melodic words: You have what it takes! You are strong enough! You are helping your son and all your children find their way!
Not all tales reach the conclusion of our choosing, but sometimes, gloriously they do.
Picture my oldest son and me sitting in a car at our grocery store parking lot. With an initial plan to quickly run in as he waited in the car, I felt a small ember of hope begin to stir.
“What if we walked up to the store window and simply looked inside?”
My son thought at first this wasn’t possible, but when I assured him that I would not push him to do anything more than he felt comfortable, he agreed. Breathe.
As he pressed his face to the glass, I said “Why don’t we simply take a step through those doors?” I reminded him of other fears conquered, yet continued to let him know that he was in control.
He gazed some more. “Okay Mom.”
We walked across that threshold and he stopped — six years into a fear, over a third of his life by the way, and one year since he last entered this store. I wondered which way the experience was going to go.
What was different for me is that I felt better prepared for either outcome. When a mom parents a child, especially one with special challenges, her own emotional growth is requisite, not subordinate, to her child’s; they go hand-in-hand, and so literally and figuratively that’s how we entered through those doors.
My son, deceptively housed in a 15-year-old hulking, broad shouldered young man’s body, proceeded to face his fears with a tense stance and a breathy utterance: “Okay. This is okay.”
We traversed a few aisles in the vicinity of the cow which thankfully had been dismantled and put out to pasture. After picking out a few favorite food items and watching my son peer down aisles as if painful memories were fluttering across his mind in quick succession, he asked to leave. Courage and grace, how illuminated you were in my son that day!
A few days later, he said: “I would like to go back to the store.” He invited his older sister and younger brother.
I imagined the keys to the store, through much trial and error, were finally placed in my son’s hands, and he now possessed the strength to unlock the door.
With tentative steps, we made our way to the lobster tank, a comforting visual distraction within earshot of produce.
My youngest son understandably grew in his own anxiety as he had been witness to many of his brother’s trying times. “Mom, we should go. He’s going to lose it!”
“I think he’ll be okay.” Nuanced gut feelings told me to gently push. We were all pushing past our natural comfort zones.
Thunder erupted. A family braced itself. Will I be consoling three dispirited kids or will we be celebrating? Inhale.
Other than enlarged eyes, my oldest son’s frozen facial features revealed no clues.
The assaulting sound ended. Was it really a 10-second sound or so that had held a boy and a mother’s heart in its walled-off madness for six long years?
If I could put a word to this moment it would be purity. To unite around all my children, gently held suspended in vulnerability together, was a moment that made me feel the pulse of life in all its mysterious, soulful beauty.
My daughter broke up the stillness with a calm, supportive tone: “That wasn’t so bad, was it?”
We waited for the reply from the six-year-abyss.
“That wasn’t bad at all.” Exhale…
We gingerly took our remaining steps through the fear-laden produce department, cradling the miracle in the confines of my pounding heart. With tears glassing my eyes, I wanted to roll around on the floor and sing chants of praise that could rival a church revival! Hello Joy! Hello Triumph! Oh how I’ve missed you! I wanted to shout in the intercom:
“Attention shoppers! A miracle occurred right in your midst today! A boy, now an emerging young man, crippled by a fear, let it go today and freed himself!”
I’ve come to understand that autism, just like many major life challenges, isn’t an all or nothing battle, stuck in the belief that if you don’t find the cure, you’ll never find contentment; there’s a whole lot of terrain to explore in between those polar extremes. The illusion that happiness can only be found in the imaginary world of Johnny and Susie and magical gurus has thankfully been extinguished for me.
“I did it Mom! I did it! I’m not afraid anymore of the store! Are you proud of me?”
“Oh, how proud I am! I love you so much! How do you feel?”
“I feel happy Mom. I feel happy!”
Me too grasshopper, me too.
This essay was originally published on cheeselesspizza.blogspot.com.