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My Son With Autism Never Cared for the Doctor's Box of Stickers, But I Used to

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​A flashback today, one filled with a range of emotions: sadness, regret, reflection…but mostly joy. And it was brought on by a sticker.

It was the sticker box at the pediatrician’s office with a blue, happy face sticker smiling and mocking me as if it remembered something I had tried to forget. And sure enough, I had. Stupid stickers, so full of themselves.

I certainly hadn’t forgotten the anxiety, the stress and the pain that occurred in that exam room (along with all the other exam rooms) for my son, Ryan, at each and every doctor’s appointment. No, chances are I will never forget that. What I did forget (blocked out) was that damn sticker box. The box that came out after every appointment ended. The box that symbolized the worst was over and a well deserved sticker was in order. In other words, the good part. Unless, of course, the stickiness of stickers felt almost as horrible as the stick of an immunization shot.

I remember reaching into the sticker box trying to soothe Ryan’s tears after each agonizing appointment with a Thomas, Dora or Blues Clues. “Here baby, which one will make you feel better?” To which he responded with more tears and “no, no, no.” So, I would pick one for him, certain he would want it later. But he would never touch it. Ever.

The worst part of that stupid, smiling sticker box was the hope I placed in it. My hope clung to that box as zealously as this blue, smiling face lunatic staring happily in my face clung to the side of a plastic container. I didn’t understand why stickers were so abhorrent for my son, but, in some way, they became the ultimate symbol to me that something was “different.”

I believed that if just one time Ryan would reach into that box, pull a sticker out and willingly put that sticker on his shirt like every other kid walking out the door of the pediatrician’s office, then all my fears of him being “different” would be wiped away with his tears. Somehow, a box of Blues Clues stickers became the gauge of what I felt was “normal.” The power I gave that sticker box was ridiculous.

After I understood that Ryan didn’t like how the stickiness of stickers felt on his fingers and that he didn’t understand how his beloved friends Blue and Thomas, who he watched on his television, could somehow become a sticker placed on his shirt, the stickers lost their power over me. I would tell the doctor or nurse that he did not like stickers and the box would quickly be out of sight, and out of mind. Bringing us both relief for different reasons.

Today, I smiled as the nurse handed my neurotypical daughter, Emma, the sticker box and she quickly found a mustache sticker which she happily placed on her upper lip and began talking in some deep, man-like voice. This is what I thought was “normal?”

I love the saying, “normal is just a setting in your dryer,” because honestly it’s kind of true. What and who the hell is “normal?”

As my pink mustached 10-year-old and I walked out of the exam room, I stole one last glance at the sticker box with its blue, happy face still grinning at me and this time I smiled back. That box never held answers for my son. The hard work day in and day out and the progress Ryan was making in order to understand a world filled with sticky stickers, a world he desperately wanted to safely and happily navigate, is where I eventually found hope. And that’s where hope was all along.

Today, Ryan would say that stickers have no purpose and are a waste because you stick them on something and eventually they peel off, and I would listen and smile at his incredibly, sensible logic. However, 12 years ago, Ryan hadn’t yet learned to say those words. All he could manage was, “no, no, no.” And unfortunately, 12 years ago, I hadn’t yet learned how to listen.

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Originally published: October 20, 2017
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