I’m used to Ben’s one- or two-word commands. He delivers them sweetly but starkly, without inflection or melody. “Hot dog…more hot dog.”
The exception is an eight-word sentence that he’s been repeating daily for the past nine months: “We need to buy it at the store.” It surfaces when he’s checking the fridge for hot dogs or the pantry for popcorn, two of the items, along with cheese pizza of course, that he has any interest in. I explain that Daddy has no money right now. “Tomorrow,” he says, which he pronounces tomorr-a. And again: “We can buy hot dogs at the store…tomorrow.”
Ben loves eating hot dogs but his fascination, and among his quirkiest compulsions, is shopping for them. You would think that a massive Ralph’s grocery store – the bright lights, hurried customers, and chaotic sounds – would cause him unbearable anxiety and fear and would be the last place a boy with autism would seek out. I don’t know too many parents who enjoy shopping, but apparently little Ben loves the rush and excitement.
Autistic kids, it seems, always seek or avoid stimulation. It’s one or the other – and it can change throughout the day. There are times, for example, when Ben withdraws from crowds. At Chuckie Cheese, when the giant character greets the excited children, Ben literally jumps into my arms. There’s no explanation that I can decipher. I guess it all depends on how Ben’s feeling that day.
His shopping antenna is sharply attuned. Whenever we’re close to a grocery store, Ben seems to know. As I drive down an anonymous suburban, tree-lined street, I hear Ben muttering to himself and, seconds later, more loudly to me: “Shopping!” If we leave a restaurant and Ben sees a grocery store, he will make a run for it. It’s a busy area with lots of cars, which he doesn’t always register. I will reach my arms around him and not let go.
The first time he tried this antic, it caused me, a single dad, untold stress. We had just entered the store. Right away he took off running…down the aisle, a left turn…and he was gone! I took off with his younger brother, Ryan, to find him, poking my head down every aisle, checking with the clerks, enduring the judgmental stares of suburban housewives. I imagined word getting back to Ben’s mother and being painted as an irresponsible dad who had lost his autistic son. Finally I found Ben. He had in his possession six or seven boxes…cookie dough, hot dogs, and Mac n Cheese among them – which he had carefully picked out. He dropped them in the cart and ran off to get more.
Over time, I realized that I needn’t worry about losing Ben at the store. My six-year-old is a focused shopper who knows his way around the grocery store probably better than I do. He can’t dress himself but he has no problem finding what he’s looking for. People always ask if Ben has special abilities like the Dustin Hoffman character in Rain Man, from which, it sometimes seems, the popular understanding of autism is largely derived. No, he really doesn’t, save for an incredibly sweet nature. And a penchant for shopping.
Last week I had the boys over. Ben opened the refrigerator, hoping once again to find hot dogs. I said, “Sorry, Ben.” He looked at me with his round, innocent eyes and said, “We have to buy hot dogs at the store.”
“Yes, Ben, that’s right, we have to buy them at the store,” I said patiently.
Then he said something for which I was not prepared. “We have to buy Daddy at the store.”
I laughed so hard, smiling with my heart. It’s so rare, and so beautiful for his father, to see Ben consciously engage in humor and playfulness. It even elicited a laugh from Ryan, who was playing with Legos a few feet away.
What’s the long-term scenario for little Ben’s shopping fetish? Does he lose interest in it over time or does he grow into a wunderkind shopper? I like the second option. Hmmm…maybe one day I’ll be sipping my Starbucks and sifting through the New York Times while Ben does the shopping for me.
Yeah, that’s the ticket.