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Do I Do Too Little Or Too Much For My Son on the Autism Spectrum?

It’s not unusual to question if you’re doing enough when you’re raising an autistic child. Part of that is just general anxiety. The other is worrying over whether or not you’re giving them enough time, therapy, guidance, etc. It’s hard to benchmark as well, because every autistic child is unique. The progress one is making can’t be used to gauge how much another should be.

I worry about whether or not I’m doing enough to help my boy live up to his potential all the time. The only thing that worries me more is that I might be doing too much.

Last week we had some running around to do. I wanted to go to the super-fun comic book shop, Mommy wanted to go to the super-boring craft store. To coerce me into going along with her trip to the Seventh Level of Hell, she said we could go by the shop first. Booyah! So we loaded my boy and his brother into the car and got going.

Now most of the time, he loves getting out of the house. He is actually prone to cabin fever and likes to get out and about. Within reason. He can usually handle one stop. Two stops start to get a little dicey. Three requires armed security. Four and you’re going to have to make peace with your chosen deity. That said, I wasn’t too worried about making two stops. I’ve known the owners of the shop I frequent since I was 10, and it has always been a safe space for him. His hooting, dancing and running around isn’t just expected, it’s encouraged. I figured it would keep him happy enough to where one more stop afterwards wouldn’t be any big deal.

Unfortunately, I forgot one important thing — time is also a factor. Two stops generally isn’t a big deal, as long as we get in and out in a timely fashion. Problem is, I wasn’t paying attention to the clock. By the time I was cashing out at the shop and collecting everybody to get back on the road, we had been there over an hour and he was more than ready to call it a night. We weren’t ready to go  home yet though. We were already out and about, with the craft store just five minutes away, and his mom was dead set on picking up some things she needed at the craft store for his birthday. So we pushed on. Got to the craft store. Parked the car. Walked the boys in, and it was no sooner than we had entered through the automatic doors my boy was done.

My first instinct was to take him to the car and wait on his mom and brother. However, it was pointed out to me that he had to get used to going places, especially ones he didn’t necessarily want to go to. Keep in mind that we know our boy well enough to know the difference between tantrums and meltdowns. He’s 6. He acts out just like any 6-year-old would when dragged to the most boring spot on Earth. He’s just louder about it, and lacks finesse when it comes to expressing his displeasure. We weren’t at meltdown status. So, I enacted the quickest solution I could think of to remedy the problem: I picked him up and put him on my shoulders while we walked around the store.

This was a tried and true solution I have always been able to employ to great success in the past. Unfortunately, it has become more difficult the bigger he’s gotten and the more decrepit I’ve gotten. He’s 3-feet 7-inches and 59-pounds. Now. To a Marine, I’m sure that would be no worse than their typical pack-out. I’m not a Marine. I’m a sissy la-la who’s more fat than fit. I can dig deep, though, when it comes to my boy. So there I was, with my beautiful wife assuring me that she would be able to zip through her list and get us out of there quick.

Anyone who’s ever been to the craft shop with my wife would have been able to tell me that wasn’t going to happen. So as the minutes dragged on, between helping her find the special food-drawing markers and trying to remember to breathe with the exertion, I started thinking, yeah, Footloose was perfectly content at the moment, but I felt like I was about to crumble under the weight of his flappy, wiggly self. Throwing the kid on my shoulders is not a long-term solution. What am I going to do when he gets bigger?
Which of course made me worry about everything else I do for him. I still feed him most of the time. It’s not that he can’t feed himself or use utensils. It’s that he’ll take two hours to eat a bowl of Spaghetti-O’s. It’s not just a problem with focus. I automatically anticipate and deliver those things he wants on a daily basis instead of making him ask. Things like a cup of juice, a snack, his I-Pad, the 1,000,000,000th viewing of “An American Tail.” It makes him calm and happy.

I’m starting to worry that calm and happy might not be the best thing for him. How can he grow if I don’t push him? How can he learn to do things for himself if I do it all for him? If I’m being honest with myself, can I say that the reason I do these things is to see that it keeps him happy, or that it keeps me happy? Do I do these things to make his life easier, or to make my own life easier?

I don’t have the answer yet, but it’s been weighing heavy on my mind since that night. Either way, I don’t think the answer is going to please him or me very much. I think there has to be a balance, a sweet spot between helping him when it counts and giving him the push he needs to learn how to do things for himself.

It’s the same with any kids — they never know what they’re capable of until they’re put in a place where they have to dig deep to figure out what they can really do. It’s not going to be fun. It may not be pleasant. For either of us. It’s going to take a lot of patience on both our parts to figure out what his limits really are and the best way to push them. I think it’s time, though.

Besides, it could be worse. It could be another trip to the craft store. Seriously, I hate that place.

A version of this story originally appeared on Fatherhood in the Trenches.

Getty image by Vect0r0vich