Most of the time, I feel like I'm parenting with a paper bag over my head, with no idea if I'm saying or doing the right thing. I like to believe that this has nothing to do with Bud's autism and that many parents feel like parenting is mostly just fumbling around in the dark, trying to minimize the damage you do, and hoping that, perhaps, by chance, you just might stumble into something good. And, man, when you stumble into the good stuff - wow, does it feel good.
Bud's school is currently running their Winter Sports program on Fridays. Unlike last year, Bud was absolutely sure which activity he wanted to choose: cross-country skiing. The team at school built a support plan and were ready to roll on the first day: he'd be skiing with his paraprofessional, Mrs. Nee, and a special educator, Mrs. Jamison, two women he trusts implicitly, along with the instructor and other children.
When the time came, though, despite extensive preparation, the dramatic break in schedule proved to be too much for my routine-craving boy. Suffice it to say, it was a very difficult afternoon for everyone who was there, and Bud was sad and exhausted by the time he got home. I think he worried that he'd burned a bridge with Mrs. Nee, because on Monday - and every day for the rest of the week - instead of grumbling about not wanting to be at school, he met her at the door in the morning with a hug.
The team made a plan for the following Friday, modifying his Winter Sports schedule in a way that didn't make it seem like he was being rewarded for difficult behavior. He switched to snowshoeing (at his request) with Mrs. Jamison - an activity that is more familiar and that doesn't require a bus ride. The team developed a social story that he read and discussed at school and at home, and he seemed happily ready for the next Winter Sports day.
When the idea became reality, though, Bud balked and though his response wasn't as extreme as it had been the week before, it centered on the absence of Mrs. Nee - an absence he found so dysregulating that Mrs. Jamison opted to scrap the snowshoeing and move on to an even less challenging Plan B.
Mrs. Jamison sent me an e-mail at work to fill me in on how the day had gone, and I called Bud on the phone as I drove home. We talked about what happened and I told him that we would need to keep talking about it, so that he would be ready for Winter Sports next week.
"Can Mrs. Nee do snowshoeing?" he asked.
"I don't think so, Bud," I answered, not wanting to promise anything that might not be a possibility. "She is supposed to go skiing."
"But could Mrs. Nee switch to snowshoeing?" he asked. "Can she do snowshoeing instead of skiing with everyone else?"
Inside my head, I was tap-dancing at the sophistication of his language and his ability to problem-solve and communicate his hypothetical ideas, but with my outside voice, I said, "I just don't think so, Bud."
"Can I just stay at school and do work with Mrs. Nee while everyone else does Winter Sports?"
I was stunned by the idea that he would opt for work over play in any circumstance, but began to understand the depth of feeling he had surrounding the "loss" of Mrs. Nee for the afternoon.
"It's hard when Mrs. Nee isn't with you, huh, Bud?" I asked.
"It makes me sad," he said. "I'm sad because I miss Mrs. Nee. Can we ask her to do work with me?"
"I'm not sure it's a choice, Bud," I said, silently scolding myself for using language that folds in on itself and is probably hard for him to understand. "She might have to stay with skiing."
"But can I tell her?"
"You can't tell her what to do," I said, "but you can tell her how you're feeling."
"I can tell her how I'm feeling? I can tell Mrs. Nee that I feel sad?"
"Yes, Bud," I said. "It's always okay to talk about your feelings."
"Oh, THANK YOU, Mom," he said, the relief in his voice evident even through the phone. "You make my heart happy."
And, I'm sure I don't need to tell you, that was a parenting moment that made for two happy hearts.