LOVE GIVES ITSELF
Love startles you when it comes packaged with curly brown hair, torn jeans, and a winning smile, yet stands only four feet tall in muddy sneakers. That kind of love can indeed be life changing.
I recently returned from visiting my son’s family. They live 1,260 miles from my home in Arkansas. And we all know what family visits can be like. I think we can agree there are excellent reasons why Erma Bombeck titled one of her books Family, the Ties That Bind and Gag Us. On this particular visit north, the bonding component was incredibly apparent; the gagging component was totally missing.
My grandson, Carson, now a third-grader, was diagnosed at age one with autism; ranked on the high end of the spectrum. That meant he specifically needed help in the areas of social interaction and speech development.
Carson qualified for an intense and unique early intervention program. He had therapeutic health professionals come to his home. Directed follow up required participation of both child and parents and weekly evaluations and progress conferences.
As Carson changed so did each of us who loved him. We continue to adapt day by day. During this visit, Carson made a particularly important and independent decision that amused and delighted the entire family.
His mother, Renee, told him after breakfast one morning that his Dad and she would be taking his older brother, Connor, and Connor’s friend, out to a concert around six o’clock that night, and that Gramma would be babysitting him. He asked why he wasn’t going with the family, but didn’t fuss when they explained he was too young to go to rock concerts. They reminded Carson that Connor is eight years older than he is.
He accepted their decision with a calmness that signaled long-awaited maturing behavior. About an hour later he asked what time he needed to go to bed that evening.
“Your usual time,” Renee replied. “Nine o’clock, because it’s Saturday.” Carson nodded. Again he accepted the news with ease.
“What should I do while you’re at the concert?” he wanted to know.
“What would you like to do?” asked his Dad.
Carson held eye contact and said he would think about that. My son and I smiled at each other. Maintaining eye contact and stopping to think are welcome signs of social growth for autistic children and for their parents and grandparents, their main support network.
I had remained on the sidelines observing this scene and decided to throw in my two cents at this point. “What do you think he’ll decide?” I asked.
Over the years I have spoken with Carson on the phone sporadically as he became able and agreeable to do so. I live in Arkansas and he in Pennsylvania, so we only get to be physically together about once or twice a year. It is difficult for an autistic child to process relationships under those circumstances though my photo is in plain view on their
refrigerator, and the family purposefully refers to me often in conversation.
“Mom, he’ll be happy to play outside in the yard,” said Renee.
“He may want to watch a movie. A calm movie, Mom. And no sugar after his meal so he doesn’t get too excited before bath time,” said Jim.
“Okay,” I agreed. Then I made a decision too.
Carson had gone downstairs to the family room during this exchange so I walked to the top of the stairs and called, “Carson, would you please come upstairs for a few minutes so you and I can talk?” No answer. I waited for at least five minutes and repeated my question from the top of the steps. No answer. A familiar response. I was not surprised nor offrnded..
However, Jim realized I had asked Carson twice so he intervened. “Carson, I think Gramma asked you a question. Come up here, please.” God love him. He climbed the steps almost immediately and walked directly toward us.
Carson’s early intervention therapy started shortly after he was diagnosed, so he has eight years of training in socialization under his little-boy belt. I watched him approach, remembering those toddler years. During the beginning stretch of his life the therapists taught family members a unique signing procedure designed to help Carson control his then-frequent angry outbursts. The many and varied therapists in his life we continue to value as unexpected blessings.
Now he stood before his parents and me and announced, “Tonight I’m going to babysit Gramma.” His steady eye contact signaled he was serious; he had made a very important decision. This was the first of its kind. His parents, being patient and wise, told him they thought his idea was great.
“What are you and Gramma going to do while we’re at the concert?” his Dad asked.
“We’ll have fun,” was the prompt reply. “You’ll see, Gramma,” he re-assured me, then turned and left the room. His curly brown hair and self-controlled brown eyes disappeared from view.
Connor had heard his brother’s declaration from where he stood unloading the dishwasher. “Wow, Gramma. I can’t believe it. That’s a first for Carson. This ought to be good.” He smiled.
An hour later the concert-goers left without incident. Carson said, “Let’s go outside and play soccer, Gramma.” He kicked that ball around the back yard like a world championship was at risk. It was a joy to watch him. And a testimony to a well-planned, well-implemented and well-executed Individual Education Plan (IEP) put together by the staff of his elementary school. Yes, the school staff are valued, unexpected blessings for all of us.
It was not too long until soccer among the leaves became leaf raking and shortly after that became a game of rolling in the leaves. Short attention spans persist in Carson, appetites grow quickly, and two people with leaf-strewn hair had to brush each other off before racing to the kitchen door. Carson zapped me from responsible adult into a carefree leaf-roller with one quick request.
He reminded me we had to remove our shoes by the door and wash our hands and face because it was time to eat. At the table his manners while eating pizza (with all that red sauce and removable pepperoni) were impeccable, though it was a five-napkin meal.
Throughout the course of the night, whenever he directed me, he maintained eye contact, and his face took on a special look. each look reminded me that the most important thing in communicating with him is to hear what is not being said. That affects both of us. Our bond deepens..
Later Carson undressed, shampooed and showered himself with little help from me. He explained his choice of underwear and pajamas to me as intently as he had savored each slice of pepperoni.
Next, like all good babysitters do, Carson read me a book, Pinocchio, with as much confidence and passion as Anderson Cooper reporting from a foreign land. I continue to be amazed at how well this autistic child spells and reads aloud. I realize he struggles with comprehension of text, but his oral expression and his coding and decoding skills are topnotch thanks to dedicated teachers and his parents who listen to him read aloud every day without fail.
Afterwards he slipped the disc of "Ice Age" into the DVD player and handled the remote like an expert.. As the movie progressed, I became increasingly aware of the fact that his repetitive scripting in the past eight years had, ever so slowly, been channeled into a more socially acceptable form of speech.
His correct identification and accurate pronunciation of every dinosaur's name as it traveled across the screen, was evidence of his motivation to learn, and the conglomerate of his acquired abilities.
My gratitude goes out to every person who fostered and continues to energize Carson's growth as they willingly shower him with their skillful, generous love day after day. I marvel at their individual dedication as I recall the early months of his training, and the thousands upon thousands of hours of love offered to guide this special child who has changed himself and me and all those who love him.