Ryan of late has begun calling me Dad. It’s practically all the time, Dad this, Dad that, like the way some guys overuse “dude.” Hey dad, check it out…Dad, are we almost there? And then, as the sun falls and the sky darkens, his voice softens: Dad, are we going to cuddle tonight?
When Ben does speak, he prefers “Daddy.” Just before Christmas vacation, I arranged to visit Ben’s first-grade classroom for the first time, a key part of my Autism Warrior plan. Ben was sitting in his little person’s chair in a semi-circle with five other kids with disabilities. Ben couldn’t contain his excitement, blurting out:
Daddy, siffme! Daddy, siffme!
I glanced at his special ed teacher. “Can I sit with him?” She gave me the green light, something she would later regret. I sat on the little chair, engulfing it, with Ben on my knee. It felt good to hold Ben. I handed him a yellow Starburst. “Put it in your pocket for later.” The teacher glanced at me and I smiled awkwardly; it didn’t take long for me to feel like I was back at the principal’s office. Ben, forgetting for a moment that he was in class, blurted out: “Tac-o.” The teacher was prepared with a response:
Actually, we’re having pizza for lunch today, Ben.
I chuckled to myself, recalling how I too had once mistaken the same word .To Ben I whispered: “Later. I’ll tickle you later, I promise.” It was apparent that he was feeling altogether too comfortable with me.
I was there three hours. I got a better idea of what Ben can do and what he struggles with, which, it pains me to say, is most things. His teacher gave me a copy of Ben’s IEP. She told me flat-out that Ben will never be able to count. He won’t be able to read or write. Instead, the focus is on teaching him to live independently: dressing himself, brushing his teeth, putting on his shoes. One day he might be able to live at a group home and, if he’s lucky, hold down a basic job. I was hearing this for the first time. Ben’s classroom was adorned with holiday decorations and warm cheer, but for a long moment I disappeared into a cold reality. Maybe at some level I suspected it, but no one in an official capacity had ever said it to me so plainly and directly.
Later I accompanied Ben to recess and watched him keep to himself. He was in his own world, even more so than the other kids. But he was content, at times even ecstatic. An aide commented about Ben’s nature, which is invariably sunny and serene. I understand that the goal is to pull kids with autism out of their internal worlds, so they can join our reality. But what if Ben’s world is better than our world?
At recess a surprise came when I saw Ben hop on a bike with training wheels. As he trekked across the playground, his teacher told me Ben had outgrown that bike. I’d heard nothing about this from his mother, who is not a big communicator. It was a startling revelation, alone worth the price of admission. Ben turns 7 in February; now I know what I’m getting him! Another surprise: Ben is enrolled in a basketball program for kids with autism. I can’t imagine why anyone would want to conceal this, why his mother didn’t excitedly tell me about it? It is what it is.
So these are baby steps: I know Ben’s teacher and she knows me. I am on her radar. And even though Ben may not verbalize it, he was obviously happy to see me in his classroom. I left after eating lunch with Ben. As I bid them farewell, the teacher took me aside to thank me for coming. She mentioned that she had spoken with Heather, and that my ex was happy to hear that I was visiting the classroom. It felt good to be more involved in Ben’s life, to feel essential instead of expendable. I don’t know that I felt like an Autism Warrior.
What I do know is that I felt like Dad.
Editor’s Note: Also at http://www.facebook.com/pages/Autism-Dad/160327080653310