There is a very lonely part of being a mom to a young adult with autism that we don’t often talk about. I am very down as I write this and it is my hope that if you’re reading this, and you are also down, we will still be sad, but sad with company, which somehow makes it better.
Caleb has been struggling with a few new things this school year. I am limited in how I can help him in so many ways. I don’t know everything that happens in a day, despite wonderful communication with his amazing teacher. Someone might look at Caleb wrong or a fellow student may bang a desk and send his day spiraling. The tiniest infraction that no one else caught can absolutely ruin his day.
Like many typical boys, Caleb doesn’t want to talk about what’s bothering him. He will hold it in for days, weeks, or longer, often divulging things to his marvelous therapist that happened a while back. His therapist and I will scratch our heads, wondering how awful it must be to have pain nestled like a thorn in your foot for months at a time. If it were a physical thorn, the damage could be as extreme as a gangrenous infection. I believe the emotional equivalent is just as devastating.
I can tell when Caleb’s suffering and I do all the things that worked with my 20 year-old typical daughter. They don’t work with Caleb. He barely tolerates touch on a good day, so offering him a hug when he’s upset is like offering someone hot coffee on 100 degree day. Blame his innate temperament, autism, being male—whatever. It all leaves him sad, angry or frustrated and it leaves me devastated.
One of the most difficult things special needs kids face as teenagers is that they have mental, physical and behavioral challenges and they are still physically teenagers. Even with awesome teachers, therapists and in Caleb’s case, a wonderfully supportive public high school, it’s still high school. High school is challenging to almost everyone—I can’t imagine how Caleb balances all of his regular challenges, plus hormones, plus being around other teenagers. It must be unbearable, and that is what I’m focusing on as I’m trying not to cry as I write this.
Every night at the same time, we eat dinner together. This means I prepare everything, cut it all up and serve it with his favorite plastic-handled spoon from when he was a toddler. Metal spoons aggravate him. Then, because Caleb is completely exhausted, I help him prepare for bed. This means crushing his nighttime meds and sprinkling them atop a shot glass full of chocolate milk so he can swallow them.
The next steps are washing his face, brushing his teeth, flossing them, applying an enamel-restoring rinse, then applying prescription acne medication and popping his retainer in his mouth. Then he selects one of his many books and we read a bed-time story. He will be 19 this month, but the story is his decision—he looks forward to it and if we have company over, he loves to have someone else share in this ritual. It’s almost always a happy occasion, with laughter and bonding and all the lovely things a good story can bring. We close with bedtime prayers, then I turn on his nightlight and quietly leave the room.
To someone who doesn’t have experience with autism or profound special needs, I can imagine that Caleb’s schedule reads like I am a controlling mom who won’t allow him to be independent. Nothing could be further from the truth. Over the years, I’ve worked with occupational therapists to help him gain independence, but the physicality and skills just aren’t there.
Caleb is blessed by a truly remarkable dentist who has treated him since he was two years old. A few years ago, she pulled me aside and asked if Caleb had been brushing his own teeth. When I answered that we were trying that, she gently told me that his teeth were being affected and I needed to perform his oral hygiene for him. I have received the same advice from other doctors about his basic hygiene.
So, back to the bedtime routine and what happened today. Caleb came home from school unusually tired. I asked him if he wanted to talk and he said, “Leave me alone.” That sounds harsh, but it’s actually the result of years of really hard work. When he was younger, he would hit himself in the face or scream or just run out of the room. When he says those words now, I understand and let him retreat.
In the last two years, Caleb has created a new sentence which he uses when he is particularly upset: “I be big boy.” This means he doesn’t want me to assist him in getting ready for bed or reading a story. It seems to me to be a form of self-punishment; he’s in pain which he doesn’t understand and he simultaneously somehow blames himself for the pain, so he takes away all nurturing. He takes away his favorite ritual.
I listen from another room as he brushes his teeth and puts in his retainer. This happens so rarely that I allow the slight disruption to his otherwise extensive hygiene. Something much deeper and very painful is happening for him and with all he has to deal with, I step back.
On nights where he’s partially upset but able to tolerate some of my attention, we get through all of the hygiene, but when we’re reading a story and I laugh, he will say, “Don’t look. Don’t smile.” I’m not sure what is going on when he says this, but it’s a boundary he has created and I respect it.
When Caleb says any of these statements, I quietly retreat and give him space because that is what he is telling me he needs. As I wrote above, I can’t imagine what one minute of Caleb’s world is like. His entire body hurts. His language tests around age five, but it is so disordered that many people can’t understand him. He lacks the basic ability to communicate. His heart doesn’t function properly. His balance is not good so every step takes meticulous planning. Gross and fine motor movements are difficult.
Caleb’s geneticist once told me that in Caleb’s brain, there are cul-de-sacs where healthy brains have freeways. This is a hallmark for 22Q Deletion Syndrome, but that doesn’t make it any easier for Caleb to live with. He has words, feelings, opinions, complaints, thoughts, daydreams, real dreams, cravings, longings, memories and hopes that can’t find their way out of what I know deep in my soul is a gorgeous mind. Everything gets stuck. He gets stuck.
After dinner tonight, Caleb stood up and said, “I be big boy.” It was an hour earlier than his already extremely early bedtime, but I said, “Okay. I love you.”
Fifteen minutes went by and I could hear him listening to something on his iPad. I stood outside his door and could tell from the space under the door that his overhead light was off and his nightlight was on. I hesitantly knocked three times, just like he likes.
“What?” he asked.
“Can I come in, sweetie?”
And that was it. There was no screaming, no major blowup or incident. It was a quiet slice in a mama’s heart. I was standing on the other side of that door with a floppy metaphorical blanket of love that I wanted to drape over his shoulders and he didn’t want it.
This is the silent pain that everyone who loves someone with autism quietly bears. The emotional skills we have spent a lifetime acquiring and perfecting fail us. Our children suffer. We suffer because they suffer.
And there is nothing anyone can do to fix it.