The phone was broken.
Trainers were hurled against the bedroom door.
The day had been building to this. The car fuel warning light had pinged on. Traffic was heavier than usual. It was too cold outside. His finger was sore where he had bitten it. The car was rubbish. The queue in Subway was too long. He wanted to go home. Now.
The week had been building to this. School was boring. There’s too much writing. A teacher was out ill. His tummy was hurting. He doesn’t want to go back to school for one whole week. He needs a break. Two weeks. The pogo stick is too small. His toenails are curved. The unicorn cupcake tastes like washing up liquid.
There had been an incident two days prior where someone he didn’t know tried to contact him via his phone. It led to a concerning scene that ended up with his dad, me and the head of year in the deputy head teacher’s office, all praising him for doing exactly what he’d been taught to do. He had told a teacher. He hadn’t returned the call. The incident was – we think – benign, but it had scared him and us. This phone had caused angst this week. He hadn’t tried to break it. It had dropped. A few times over a few days. The screen was dead. He was beyond coping with it. With anything.
We were there, in this moment. The phone was really and truly dead. We were home alone, just he and I. I was tired. Really mentally and physically done in. It was the first day I had been out, shopping, in more than a month since having had the plague.
I started down the wrong path. “What do you want from me? (said with a bit too much oomph) I’m sorry the phone is broken. But WHAT do you want me to do?” Those eyes ready to crumble caught mine.
And I stopped. Quickly. I had voices in my head. Voices of adults with FASD who have over years helped me to see this scene from another viewpoint.
I swallowed my frustration. I forgot about the money. I forgot about the warnings I had given about needing a better phone case.
I just sat down by him, silent. Quiet until I was ready.
I gave him a hug. To his rambling, steady stream of barely connected thoughts and anxieties about how he should never have a phone, he can’t be trusted with a phone, they’re all rubbish anyway, he shouldn’t have a phone until he’s 20, I just said,
“It’s okay. You’re okay. I love you.”
I offered to give him a foot rub with lotion. I saw he was frantically scanning the room and everything he was seeing was upsetting him. I wasn’t sure more things would not soon be flying. I was in my head trying to think of who I could call because I knew this night, this night I might not be able to handle this. I was frazzled and still slightly ill. I felt my self-pity rising. I started wallowing in it, feeling it was unfair that once again it was me having to defuse yet another situation. It was borderline at this moment. I suppressed my rising distress. I narrowed us down so we both could forget all the rest of it. I needed to get my head on straight.
I asked him to close his eyes and just to concentrate on his feet. I rubbed his heals. I know he likes that. I added more lotion, warmed up in my hands first. I didn’t say anything more for several minutes.
Our heart rates slowed. The stream of unintended words had stopped. We were just there. In the moment.
Finally after the tension had melted a bit, I suggested we go sit on the bed in my room and watch a favourite movie. It reminded me how long it had been since we had done this, side by side, close.
He had brought some journals into the room with him. I wasn’t paying close attention. He opened one. I was still fiddling with the remote, trying to get the movie started. I was, if I am honest, desperate for an electronic solution to the evening’s tension. He put the booklet directly under my nose. This was important to him. The movie wasn’t the point here.
Again, I slowed down. I shut up. I listened.
I looked closely. I recognised it. It was an old home-school diary, the one with the rainbow cover. We haven’t used this in well over a year, with a different teacher, a different Key Stage. He had remembered he still had it. He opened it to a blank page, instructed me to pick up a pen, to write a big “2019” on top of the page. He told me he wanted me to write to his teacher. He told me what he wanted it to say.
He hasn’t been having his sensory breaks at school. He needs them. He feels like the rules have changed, he is not allowed to go to the sensory room this year. He wants to know why. When I said the teachers tell me he is allowed, he was insistent. They are NOT letting me go, Mum. (Listen to what he is saying, I told myself. This is important.) He told me he loses house points if he goes out of lessons. (What?!? But I stay silent, I listen, I write, and I plan the next email to the school in my head.) He misses the time when he gets to relax during the day with the school dogs. He feels like it’s all too much sitting. Too much writing. He said it is just like his old mainstream school. It’s changed at this specialist school. He can’t handle it. He doesn’t want to go.
I wrote it all down, increasingly amazed at the moment that was unfolding.
He was using his words. He was using the tools he knows that are available (tools I had forgotten) to express his needs. He was instructing me in how to advocate for him. Somehow, in his non-linear way, he was showing me the root of all that had happened today, this week. The cause of his escalating anxieties, the reason why our house has become increasingly tense over recent weeks.There is a reason.
There is always a reason. Sometimes many.
I seem to have to learn this lesson again and again and again.
Meanwhile, after we put the diary down, after he tucked into a tray full of his favourite snacks, I snuck a peak at my phone. There was a ‘situation’ heating up in an online group. An adult with FASD was expressing raw frustration over the way parents and carers too often vent their frustration in support groups. It was reminding me with sadness of recent comments and posts I have seen. One adult with FASD said (I paraphrase), “We know what people think of us. We know. We internalise that every day. We need our parents to be our safe haven.”
I vowed once again to always try my best to listen to what my son is saying to me, to always speak with him and about him with respect.
Everyone with FASD is the primary expert in themselves.
We need to be the experts in listening to those we love and sometimes in serving as their translators. Because, even if sometimes a person with FASD – big or small – might be unable to form the words and sentences in polite ways or in pretty paragraphs that help us ‘get it’, there are many ways different actions, behaviours, anxieties and sensory issues show us hints that there is something we need to understand better.
Like, say, when unicorn cupcakes taste like washing up liquid.
The best, most effective thing we can do sometimes is simply slow it down and listen.