There I was. Sitting in front of McDonalds, my 13-year old son in my lap. Holding him in a tight hug, my chin on his shoulder. Stroking his arm. Squeezing his leg. Rocking him back and forth quietly. Giving him proprioceptive input I know he needed if we had a chance of getting out of here without a huge scene. I asked him if he knew people could hear him. When he changed to a lower tone, I understood he was not fully dysregulated and we had the potential to turn this around. Ignoring the looks, I was actively thinking to myself how these days I really don’t care if others stare. They can keep on looking. My focus was where it needed to be. It was working.
It’s the last week of summer holidays. We have nearly run out of our scheduled clubs and holiday programmes: theatre school, gymnastics, movie club. This week we are more ‘freestyle’ (‘lazy,’ ‘lax’, ‘out of ideas’ are other ways to say that).
Our only plan was to go to the trampoline centre. This was our son’s request, and he specifically asked that we go there later in the day, when there would be fewer people (I was pleased of the planning ahead and self-awareness this involved). During the rest of the day, we left him to his own devices for way too long. (So, yes, maybe ‘lazy’ is the phrase I am searching for. Or ‘worn out.’)
It was time to go. Optimistic and eager for an unusual family of four outing, we trundled off. His elder (neurotypical) brother had decided to come too. It took all of about five minutes before we hit a literal roadblock. A traffic jam due to road works meant we had to redirect our route. Big mistake.
Things, as they say, took a turn for the worse.
England’s bumpy single-lane country back roads are not the best place for a child with anxiety issues who had recently surreptitiously nearly OD’d on ice cream bars. His anxiety levels skyrocketed. We were not sure we would be able to continue. We did eventually get there, barely seat-belted in (the belt and the bumps were making his tummy feel sick). My every bit of maternal patience was at its end (I was travelling in the back seat with him. His brother was in the front seat. This is our usual flying formation). We all had to be quiet. Everything was wrong, disturbing him. He had said at one point, “Maybe I just shouldn’t go in cars.” This was his way of saying he was really seriously struggling.
I am glad we got there. On those single lane roads that cut through fields, the reality is we didn’t have much choice. He had a fun one-and-a-half hours of flipping, twisting, jumping, parkouring and cartwheeling. I got to see his new aerial move. His backflip-into-front-flip. His many hours of premiere gym sessions this summer have clearly paid off. His mastery of skills is awe-inspiring. And a great way to get his ‘ya-yas’ out, as we call it. His elder brother came off after about 45 minutes, saying he has no idea how the little one can do so much jumping for so long. Neither do I. His energy has always inspired me. And yet, I could hear from the floor some of our little guy’s more excited sounds increasing as time wore on and the disco lights came on. I suspected we had passed the therapeutic usefulness of this place, and we might be in for it when it was time to leave. We started discussing strategies for the ride home even before he got off the trampolines.
Hot and overtired, he insisted on frozen yoghurt and a slushie when it was time to get off the trampoline floor. We didn’t argue. We knew we were on razor’s edge. He didn’t eat either of them. They tasted ‘disgusting!’ At least they made it into the trash without disaster. I will call that a win. We had already made a deal with our eldest about McDonald’s. Which of course meant the little guy wanted Pizza Hut.
And so there we were. He fixated on Pizza Hut. Repeatedly insisting he wanted pizza. I tried to not contradict. “You can have pizza. Another night.” Choice words flew back at me as we crossed the very busy car park. I told myself I was not caring (much) what others thought. At least he didn’t run. He didn’t hit or throw or break anything. There is progress in this scene. Even as we sat outside McDonald’s rocking together staring at the Pizza Hut which OF COURSE was directly across from us, I was trying hard to stay positive, to not let my own frustration show.
Then, finally, I heard it: “My brain is saying it wants pizza. Just pizza.”
To an onlooker, that might have seemed like more of the same. But it wasn’t. This was a different phrasing. His way of explaining to me, not demanding. These are the moments that are coming more frequently. He is increasingly verbalising his self-awareness. Even if it’s rudimentary, this is a cornerstone upon which much can be built. This, this was a sign of having reached a short-term goal. I have trained myself to recognise these whispers of hope. Conditioned my responses (though still not perfect.)
“I understand you want pizza. I understand your brain wants pizza.” Several times I repeated the word pizza, so he felt heard, validated. “Your brain is only thinking about one thing. That happens to a lot of people with FASD. It has a name: Perseveration. You have to train your brain to think of something else when it gets stuck like this.” Yes, I literally said that to my nearly dysregulated son, while we were rocking together right there in front of the older teenage crowd who were watching us as they were blowing off time at McD’s before the movies.
Sometimes it seems I can feel it or see it when he ‘hears’ something and stores it away. His body goes a certain kind of still. There is a pause. I know even in the state he was in, he heard that word “perseveration” – we will return to it another day. Many other days.
My husband had ordered a happy meal for him. We walked to the car. This time before we got into the potential torture chamber, we all stopped. I said to our little one: “It’s your choice. If you aren’t ready to go in the car, we can wait until you are.” That seemed to work. He thought about it. He said he was. And maybe he really was…until he discovered the lack of BBQ sauce in the bag and a phone was thrown (but not hard, it was not harmed, thankfully and the toss was instantly regretted. Again, mini-points toward a win).
Seatbelts on, we tried to proceed out of the parking lot without BBQ sauce, but things were escalating and we decided to turn around to get some. I think that helped, he felt ‘heard.’ Our eldest was a star, gently talking to his brother, without taking it personally this time. The trampoline park exercise had helped them both.
With the aid of newly acquired BBQ sauce and back on our normal route, the ride home was quiet. He went up to bed with no further incidents. The rest of the night was okay. (Well, with a minor blip of husband losing something leading to a house-wide and unsuccessful search. Oh, and some last-minute scheduling snafus we only discovered while husband packed for an early morning work trip…Our lives are messy around the edges these days. Imperfect. We are winging it more than usual, even for us. We are frazzled. Frayed. It is very clear we are limping along in the last week of summer.)
Even still, after it all I was left thinking: I am getting better at ignoring some things and have actually started to train myself to focus on other things. It is getting easier. I can ignore the stares – or if I can’t ignore them, I allow myself to stare back as I did the other day on the tube, rather than shrink away. (If you think you can stare at my child, I can stare at you.) I can increasingly ignore the tut-tuts and the sideways disapprovals.
More importantly, I can listen much more attentively to the nuances of my son’s – both our sons’ – moods and needs. I explained to our eldest when we got home that I think that was progress tonight, trying to help him see beyond the roadblocks, to see the markers of progress we are reaching. Six months ago or a year ago we would have experienced total disaster this evening. As it was, it was awkward. It was tense. But it was not a disaster.
So, here we are, nearing the end of the school holidays. This year it has been better than most summers, but far from ‘easy.’ Some may say I am the eternal optimist/clutching at straws, but that is the only way I can see through to the tomorrows I want for our family. Like entering instructions into a GPS, this determined choice to take the positive route is the only roadmap that will get us there even if it is not the most direct or obvious way forward.
I believe we are heading in the right direction. I insist on amplifying and marking these signs of hope. As the song once said, “it’s got to be the going, not the getting there that’s good.”