My son is on the autism spectrum and has ADHD. He is a sweet, kind boy who loves to make people happy. But lately, his emotions are getting the better of him, and he has lost the ability he has to self-regulate those emotions.
We got a puppy about two and half years ago named Fergie. She is an adorable cockapoo. We got her for our son. We wanted him to have a buddy, a pal, a friend who would be there unconditionally. He liked her but didn’t want to get too close to her for a while. Like, he likes that she’s there, but she can be over there, and that’s totally fine. It’s kind of similar to how he feels about people. It made no difference to us, though — this was a relationship he could create on his own terms without anyone feeling badly.
But then, after Fergie got out of our backyard gate one time too many, my son began to worry. A lot. Any time anyone went for the door, he would panic. He would try to block the pup from getting out, but in the process he would trip, or cause someone else (like the person trying to leave or enter the house) to get caught up in his steps. He would yell. We would yell. He would slam the door before the person was in or out. It was a mess.
He would ask to check the gate to the backyard relentlessly. He would not let the dog go out without checking the gate first. No matter what we were doing. No matter what he was doing. This was the most important thing to him.
About six months ago, we started seeing a psychologist who works with kids on the spectrum. Not because of the dog stuff specifically, but there were a number of things mounting, including the development of self-awareness by our son, that he is different. Up until now, he had never really asked or talked about his autism. With self-awareness came sadness. The moment you realize that you are different is not as easy one. There were questions and concerns. There was self-loathing, anger and frustration. There was resentment. It was more than I could help him with.
Fortunately, my son and this doctor connected right away. But the anxiety was not subsiding.
So what do we do? How do we help him?
For starters, we continued to seek the guidance of our professional. We came up with some ideas on our own: He can check the gate no more than five times a day. We allow him to ask us where the dog is as many times as he wants, which seems to soothe him. He doesn’t come running and looking for her all the time. He will be reading or playing, or practicing piano or violin in another room and just call out and ask where she is, without interrupting his life. Which is improvement. For all of us.
But then, last night, we were upstairs, and the kids getting ready for bed. My husband was going out. Our son was at the top of the stairs and heard the door and panicked. The dog was right next to me on the landing at the top of the stairs. She perked up when she heard the door open but didn’t move much. She was not planning on going anywhere, you could tell. But that didn’t register with my son. He ran to the middle of the staircase and tried to hold her back. The front door was still open because my husband was worried his son was going to fall down the stairs. We both told him to get off the stairs, and he yelled back at us, “The dog! The dog!” I yelled, “Get off the stairs!” and told my husband to go because I wanted the door closed. I got my boy onto the landing. He cried and said through his tears, “I’m sorry! I just don’t want Fergie to run away.”
I gave him time to calm down. I spoke softly and asked if I could talk to him. He said he wanted to say something.
“Go ahead, but then it’s my turn, OK?”
He calmed down, still fighting back tears with his mouth tensed. My heart broke. My boy. My baby. But he said nothing.
“What?” he asked.
“You wanted to say something to me first,” I said.
“Oh. I’m sorry. I’m so sorry but I just don’t want anything to happen to Fergie.”
“I know, honey. Can I talk now, buddy?”
“Honey, Fergie is our dog, but you are my son. My job is to protect you—”
“But what if Fergie got away?”
“If Fergie got away… it would be hard, but we can get another dog—”
“I don’t want another dog.”
“And we’re not getting another dog because Fergie is safe and sound right here.” (At the sound of her name, Fergie is now smothering him with kisses upon kisses.)
I held his hand and continued.
“But I can’t replace you,” I said, putting my hand on his heart.
He shook his head and looked up at me with the huge pools of love and hope that are his eyes and smiled.
“I love you, buddy.”
“I love you too, Mommy, but it’s just my autism. Does my sister have autism?”
“How do you know?”
“Because doctors know how to tell.”
“I wish I didn’t have autism. It makes me say things and it makes me be mean.”
My boy is not mean. But my boy does have autism. And he is realizing what that means. It means that he is rigid sometimes and that he is not always aware or sensitive to other’s feelings. And this is where, I think, it may get hard.
What happens when self-awareness, anxiety, ADHD, autism and hormones all want to be center stage? I hope the help we are getting does help. I wish for my boy to get some peace. I pray my boy can get through the next couple of years unscathed, and that when I look in his eyes, I will always see his baby face. All innocent and full of hope and dreams. And that he is still smiling, and silly, and with tons of love in his heart for the world to see.
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