He was about 5 years old at the time and just like most kids, interested in exploring his surroundings. Although, as a child with Fragile X syndrome and autism, he explored his world a bit differently than other children.
That day we were at Wal-Mart.
In the produce section.
Payton was diagnosed as being on the spectrum shortly after turning 2. After visiting with many physicians, psychologists and therapists, it wasn’t until we met a wonderful physician 150 miles from our home who, within five minutes, was able to determine our son was on the spectrum and having Fragile X syndrome. A couple genetics tests and a few weeks later, we knew for sure.
Payton and I weren’t connecting with one another. Sure, he would return a smile or two if prompted, but would quickly return to whatever he was focused on at the moment. I would try and do what he was doing, get to his level, yet he was completely secure in his own world. It was disheartening at times.
Here was a boy with a loving father who so desperately wanted to share experiences with him. A father who wanted to explore the world together and become a super tandem of father and son.
But that didn’t happen until, “Whose kid is this?” A loud, booming voice could be heard over my left shoulder. I held the cooler door open with my right hand as I turned my head in the direction toward the man’s voice.
It was my kid, Payton.
It must have taken him less than a few seconds to wander about 30 feet away from me. He was standing there, startled and looking into a refrigerated, open shelf display unit used for fruit. The man, about five feet away from Payton, was easily four or five inches taller than my six foot frame, and probably twice my weight.
I dropped the shopping basket as the cooler door slammed shut and ran over to my son.
“People want to eat these, he shouldn’t be doing that!” He was just as loud as the first time. Almost as if he wanted to make an example out of my son.
“Sir, I can explain. You see my — “
Before I could finish he continued, “It don’t matter about your son. You need to curb your kid!”
It don’t matter? Of course it does! Doesn’t he understand?
My inner voice was formulating a wonderfully articulate response about the tendencies autistic children have in a new environment. But I knew it was useless. The Wal-Mart produce section isn’t the place to hold an intellectual conversation about the rearing skills necessary to raise a child on the spectrum. And even if it was, this man surely wasn’t going to listen.
“Yes sir. I’m sorry. I will keep a better eye on him next time,” I responded as I stepped between him and Payton.
“Well, you better. We are shopping here and don’t need our fruits all messed up.”
“I understand, thank you.” And with that I turned around, realizing I didn’t even know why the man was upset in the first place.
On the open shelves, and in the cooler below, were dozens of watermelon slices neatly packaged on white styrofoam squares and wrapped with cellophane. They were on sale and seemed to be a popular item on this summer day.
At first, I couldn’t find any reason why the burly man made such a scene. Perhaps Payton was simply in his way. But the display was huge with plenty of room for anyone to easily select a nice piece of watermelon.
And then I saw it. On the lowest shelf just above the cooler, there was a piece of watermelon with what appeared to be holes in it. There were about five or six holes pushed about an inch deep into the flesh of the watermelon, just the size of a 5-year-old’s finger.
I looked at the one next to it which had about four holes pressed into the cellophane and into the fruit. Below, another one with about eight holes. Another with six holes. And another. In total, there were about a whole watermelon’s worth of slices which Payton had effectively dented into cratered pieces of pink melon.
The picture formed in my head. In the few seconds I was determining if I wanted sausage or pepperoni on our frozen pizza, my son was systematically ruining each piece of watermelon with his tiny fingers. Payton was a quick worker and I could see that it may not have taken much longer for the remaining “good” pieces to feel his fingers, and the burly man sought to stop it immediately.
But why holes in watermelon?
I had read early on — and seen firsthand — how Payton will explore his environment through tactile signals. He loved to touch, hold and feel everything. But here he was simply sticking his finger in fruit!
I looked down at him. He briefly looked back, a bit curious but unconcerned, and swiftly proceeded with his mission of sticking each piece of watermelon with his index finger. I didn’t stop him but just watched for a moment. Squish, squish, squish. He kept going one hole at time. After five or six holes, he moved onto the next piece.
I don’t know why I did it, but I stuck my finger into a piece which was on a higher shelf than Payton’s, almost chest high. Squish. I could feel the watermelon easily give way under the pressure of my finger. Even more, I could feel the actual structure of the watermelon break down the further I pushed in. It was a curious sensation, one I did not expect.
He was looking up at my piece of watermelon. Then he looked at me, in my eyes, for longest time.
I looked back at my piece of watermelon and gave it another squish from my finger. My head turned back to Payton who was watching intently. Then he turned and stuck his tiny finger into a fresh piece of watermelon. He looked back at me with a smile, it was now my turn.
The back and forth continued. His turn, my turn. A few minutes had passed before a store employee approached.
“I’ll pay for any damaged watermelons,” I said before she could speak.
She smiled, “have fun!”
I can only imagine what other people were thinking, I could feel a few eyes setting on us and nods of disapproval in my peripheral, but I didn’t care. Payton and I had a job to do, or maybe it was a game. Either way, for the first time I felt we were on the same page, completely and uniquely connected through this new, fun activity of ours.
Finally! We were the dynamic father and son duo!
It was a wonderful feeling I’ll never forget. I often look back upon that day at times when Payton and I can’t seem to connect, I remind myself to slow down and enjoy the moment. Inevitably something will appear and become a catalyst for a connection. Just like it did the first time in the Wal-Mart produce section.
Oh, and for dinner that night Payton choose the sausage pizza, while I provided us with 19 slightly dented watermelon slices!
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