Recently, a new family moved in to the house next door to ours. They have three children ages 6, 8 and 10. Boo has politely introduced himself to them and then quickly fallen head over heels for them all. As an added bonus, they have a huge trampoline in their back yard! He has been to play in their yard, and they in his. A couple weeks ago they came over and hung out for a few hours in our house and Boo did an amazing job of sharing his things and of cooperating with the way they play and going with the flow of what they wanted. I was truly in awe.
Ever since that day, he has been itching to join his new friends again. He keeps an eagle eye on their house and their driveway, and whenever he sees the car is there he thinks they need to be together. We have been on such a busy schedule lately that we haven't been able to play with them for a while. But today when we arrived home I really had no reason to say no. Sure enough, Boo spotted the car in the driveway and announced "P is home!" (their mother) He wanted to go over and jump on the trampoline, but I reminded him that it is impolite to invite yourself to someone else's home. So we agreed he would invite the kids to his house to play. I discussed with him the possibility that the other mom's answer might be no and the fact that it would be inappropriate to throw a fit if that was the case. He assured me that he understood and that he would be ok no matter what she said. We walked to the door together and he rang the bell, but no one answered. He fell instantly into despair. We walked back home, my arm around his shoulders, his chin on his chest, and him sobbing about how sad he was.
For a kid on the spectrum, Boo is blessed with an exceptional ability to understand and verbalize his own emotions. And I am constantly baffled by the oft-repeated litany of "symptoms" of autism which includes difficulties understanding and expressing emotion. If anything, Boo is an over-achiever in that department! He doesn't feel anything a little bit. There isn't slight happiness, a touch of sadness, or mild amusement. When Boo has an emotion, it is full-on, go-for-broke, no-holds-barred. Sometimes that is the most challenging thing for me as a parent. When he is inconsolable because we are temporarily out of the regular flavor of fruit smiles, or when he is doubled over with laughter over the sound of a word, it's easy to feel annoyed by the sheer ridiculousness of it. We call him our little drama king, because it sure seems like he is putting on an act. But I have to remind myself that he is not. He feels his emotions with an intensity I've never seen before, and he wears his heart on his sleeve. This is part of what terrifies me so much about him growing up and moving out into the world and away from the protective shelter of his immediate family.
Which brings us to tonight. After finding the neighbors not at home, Boo and I sat on our porch for a while crying and hugging, then transitioned into listening to the birds, then playing some t-ball. (incidentally, I noticed he is WAY overdue for a taller set. The ball on this one sits about waist level. WHEN did he get so tall?) Next thing you know, here come the neighbor kids riding up the street on their bikes. He ran to them excitedly and announced, "Hey, I invited you to my house!" Their mom was walking close behind them and agreed it was ok for them to play together. Then came the big question; at whose house shall we play? He announced he wanted to go to their house and P happily agreed. I exchanged phone numbers with her and asked her to give him at least a 10 minute warning before she needed him to leave in order to help him transition. The kids all trooped out to the trampoline, and I went to my back yard and feigned interest in my garden spot, pulling a few stray weeds and listening for the portents of an oncoming meltdown. I heard nothing but laughter. And then they all went inside the house. I was a WRECK! I couldn't hear him, couldn't see him, couldn't mediate, couldn't intervene, couldn't head off problems at the pass. In short, I couldn't stand it.
It's not as if this was the first time he's been away from me. He's had babysitters before, he goes to school, to Mammo's house, he has stayed with our Pastor's wife and with his Sunday School Superintendent for entire days. I wasn't even sure what it was that had me so tied up in knots. Why did this event feel so different? Why was I anxious about him being there? I trust P. I've had long conversations with her, and her children are sweet and well-behaved. The only thing I can put my finger on is this: I haven't told P about Boo's diagnosis. I've come close. I've eluded to it. I've referenced his therapy at school. But I walk a tightrope all the time between wanting people to "get" him, and wanting to protect his privacy. I don't want to hang his diagnosis around his neck like a sign. I don't want him to be labeled or placed in a box. But I sometimes feel like I want anyone who interacts with him to read some sort of terms-and-conditions statement, and to click "I agree" before they can continue. Because there are certain circumstances and situations that are just REALLY difficult for him to handle. And to the casual observer his resistance looks like defiance when it's not. In public he often looks like a good ol' fashioned spoiled brat. Even I can sometimes have a hard time distinguishing his typical four year old behavior from his autistic behavior.
I spent 45 solid minutes stewing and waiting and wondering. When I finally called to ask P to go ahead and give the 10 minute warning, she already had, and was down to 5. She was going down minute by minute, which is exactly what I had really wanted her to do in the first place, but thought it too demanding to ask. She told me that he had taken the warning in stride and didn't seem bothered. I said, "wait till you get to zero." Soon I stepped out the front door expecting to hear cries of resistance and to have to go retrieve Boo. Instead, I see him happily walking up the driveway hand-in-hand with P. HOLDING HANDS! This child vehemently refuses to hold hands in any other circumstance, but he was chatting pleasantly and P reported that they'd had a wonderful time, and he'd never given her a moment's trouble or argument. We said our goodnights and parted ways. Boo came back in the house as nonchalant as if this were any ordinary day. Which I realized, it was. And that itself was a victory.