Why I Taught My Son on the Autism Spectrum About 'Personal Days'

When I was a freshman in high school, things were bad at home. As my family fell apart, I struggled to get through the school day. One particularly bad day, my sister, a senior, found me crying in the hallway. She took one look at me and marched me into the counselor’s office. “My sister isn’t well,” she said “I need to take her home.” That day I learned about the importance of a personal day during those time when we just can’t do it.

Today, I introduced this idea to my 8-year-old. His autism means our day is already full of accommodations. We homeschool. He is allowed to spend hours pacing, bouncing on his yoga ball or building legos. In our home, autism is something we embrace, and with this lifestyle, autism often looks like a thriving child who loves to draw and laugh and build. Those are the good days. On the tough days (I don’t say “bad”), autism is challenging — like today — when my son was unable to tell me what he was feeling.

He is usually enthusiastic about assignments, especially art projects. But today he glanced apprehensively at the blank paper, burst into tears, and declared he needed “alone time.” This is code for, “I just can’t do it.” I know the feeling, buddy.

We tried again later with the same result, and looking at him I knew no matter how hard he tried, he would not be able to organize his thoughts or handle any expectations.
“We’re not doing this today,” I told him, “You are taking a personal day. No school. No homework. Find something you like to do and do it.”

“I’m sorry, mom, I’m really sorry” he said pleadingly, and I realized he thought I was punishing him. Disappointed. Angry. This is hard.

So I sat down with him and told him the truth: we all need personal days. Sometimes we can’t do what we want or need to do because our bodies or our brains don’t let us. Nothing is more important than taking care of himself. He is wonderful, he is good, he is working hard. And sometimes it’s just not enough, so we take a personal day. We forgive ourselves. We spend time outside, or huddle in a blanket, or watch TV.

I don’t know for sure if he understands me. I don’t know if he still believes he’s been bad or he’s “stupid.” I tell him over and over, “You are who you are meant to be. You are an important part of this family. It’s OK to take a day off,” and hope for the best. Just now, as he bounced off his ball and ran through the living room I heard him repeat, “personal…personal day…per-son-al,” and I’ve decided to take that as a good sign.

Sometimes, I worry days like these will add up and we will get behind. Or worse, that he will believe he isn’t capable or smart. That he will obsess about “personal days” or berate himself for being different. Learning to say “no,” and to set his own limits is as much a form of self-advocacy as standing up to bullies or bursting through barriers. Personal days (or “mental health days” if you wish) are not about weakness at all, but about empowerment — and today I added another tool to my autism toolbox.

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