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How a Blue Tunic Taught Me to Listen to My Son With Autism

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Every morning we get up to a barrage of inspirational images and quotes filling up our social media pages and text messages, teaching us the best way to lead our lives. In spite of this, I highly suspect we don’t learn much from those sunset images with calligraphic texts. What we really learn from is life and our personal experiences.

So here I was, getting yet another lesson from my favorite teacher — my son! From the outside, I might appear, well…kind of sorted, but the fact is, I am not. I am just as confused as anyone out there. So, although I keep telling everyone to try harder to understand and interpret their child’s behavior, even more so when they are speech-challenged, I forget my own advice quite often.

This was the day of Rakhi, an Indian festival, and I wanted to dress him in our traditional costume. He, though, was clueless about all the fuss and had no idea that the day was going to take a stressful turn. I took out the brightest, most colorful and beautifully embroidered tunic for him to put on. I knew he looked adorable the last time he had it on, so I was looking forward to another set of photos in it.

I nonchalantly went on to slide the tunic down his head when I felt the resistance and then an anxious shriek. My first thought was that embroidery or a button got caught in his hair, and so I pulled the tunic out and tried sliding it back in again. Same resistance, same frightened expression, as if he was scared of something. I paused for a moment, let him touch and feel the tunic, and then tried again. He wouldn’t let it budge. I decided to turn the tables and let him try putting it on by himself. I would be lying if I said he did not try. He did. But he seemed really stressed about having it on and would try putting it on and then immediately take it off, giving out a cry.

We tried this for over 30 minutes . I tried forcing him to wear it, then letting him try it on his own, then letting him feel the tunic and explore it, giving him a break, giving him the “I mean business” look, trying again, and finally I gave up after a half-hour-long struggle over a piece of clothing.

He had worn this on one previous occasion. I remember that it was not easy then as well but we did manage to put it on, so I could not understand why it was turning into a battle now. I left the room and just sat on the couch and cried. I was exhausted from the whole tussle and emotionally worn-out. It was just a blue cotton tunic, a gorgeous one at that. How difficult was it to put it on? Just the other day, I tried to trace his foot on a sheet of paper to measure it. We had a similar struggle before I gave up. That memory was still fresh in my mind and then today happened.

I was frustrated over all the anxiety he had over what to me seemed like the most mundane thing. I wondered why everything had to be this difficult. I wanted to believe I was not being stubborn over this and only trying to help my son get over his anxiety and unreasonable fear. Boy, was I wrong!

While I was wallowing in self-proclaimed misery, my son stood puzzled over my overreaction and clearly stressed over what transpired between the two of us. All he did was refuse to wear a tunic. He probably could not understand what the big deal was. He walked up to me and said, “I want Mumma,” and gave me a big kiss. He has been doing this lately. When I am upset, he will come to me and say, “I want Mumma.” I am guessing this means he wants the previous, non-upset version of me  —  the Mumma he knows; the mom he prefers. This almost invariably melts my heart. It worked again. The self-pity that had suddenly appeared with my tantrum now dissolved in that wetness of that kiss that still made my cheeks feel moist. With my rage vaporizing in the warmth of the moment, I could now see clearly.

I went back to the closet and picked up another tunic. This was a plain denim one, soft and with nothing fancy on it. Still apprehensive, I went up to my son and tried putting it on him. It slid right on, easy peasy. No struggles, no anxiety, no stress  —  like it should be. He looked absolutely precious in it, just like I had hoped he would look in that blue tunic. I had to remind myself that it’s he who makes what he wears look adorable, not the other way around.

The blue tunic had tons of embroidery in all conceivable colors. That might have been too overwhelming to look at for my son who deals with sensory issues on a daily basis. How could I not see that? It was not that he was against wearing a tunic. He was just scared of wearing that blue one. I should have figured that out when he gave out that nervous cry the very first time, but in my relentlessness, I completely overlooked what he was trying to tell me. I keep reminding myself that when my son insists on something, I need to give him the benefit of the doubt. He often can’t communicate with words, so his actions will be doing the talking and I need to listen. My son was telling me over and over again that something about the tunic made him uncomfortable. I was not ready to listen. It was me who was throwing a tantrum. Not him.

The incident with the blue tunic was a reminder that if only we learned to pay more attention to what our kids are trying to communicate with their behavior, we would be able to avoid so much conflict and stress. It’s easy to label a behavior as maladaptive and call a meltdown a tantrum. It takes a little more effort and a lot more patience to know what lies underneath. Every time I fail to understand what my son is trying to communicate and shroud my judgment with my preconceived notions, I fail my son. I fail his belief in me. I failed him again this time.

Although he was the one under stress, it was me, not him, who went into a meltdown while he calmed me down. And they say my son is the one with a disorder.

Originally published: November 28, 2020
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