What I Learned From Ferdinand's Mother as I Parent a Kid on the Autism Spectrum
“All the other bulls would run and jump and butt their heads together, but not Ferdinand. He liked to just sit quietly and smell the flowers. Sometimes, his mother, who was a cow, would worry about him. She was afraid he would be lonesome all by himself. ‘Why don’t you run and play with the other little bulls and skip and butt your head,’ she would say.” — From “The Story of Ferdinand,” by Munro Leaf.
The first time I noticed my son not socializing was at a PEPS group when he was 9 months old.
All the other babies stayed inside the circle formed by parents. While they crawled and rolled over one another, my son made repeated breaks for the door. I kept having to leave the circle to retrieve him. I’d place him back down with the other babies and immediately he’d escape again.
This frustrated me. First, I was lonely. I wanted to connect with the other parents and going after him prevented me from doing so.
Worse, I was worried about my son. I felt the same panic parents feel (even cows) when their child is behaving differently than every other child. I desperately wanted him to skip and play and butt heads with the other babies.
I’ve always loved the story of Ferdinand, even before I had kids. It’s one some of us can relate to — of feeling pressured into being someone we’re just not. All poor Ferdinand wants is to be left alone to sit under his favorite tree and smell flowers. Instead, he’s made to fight.
Perhaps Ferdinand, like my son, is on the autism spectrum. Perhaps he just really likes flowers. Either way, he has every right to be who he is.
My son is 7 now and he still prefers being alone over being with others. He likes kids, but finds them confusing. For him, being with people is work, not relaxation.
I am the opposite. I require frequent and varied human contact in order to be happy. I rely on my friends for support, laughter and engagement. Without them, I would feel lonely.
I’ve made the mistake in the past of believing that the same must be true for my son.
In fact, I’ve gone overboard in my efforts to ensure he’s not lonely. I’ve arranged countless play dates and hosted cookie-decorating parties, potlucks and pizza nights. I’ve initiated all kinds of zany group outings, from bowling to caroling to indoor sky-diving.
Rather than my son discovering the joys of friendship and community, I’ve discovered that too much social stimulation overwhelms him and can lead to disaster. I’ll never forget the family potluck when he locked all our guests out of our house.
My son actually enjoys socializing — in small doses and under narrowly prescribed conditions. He likes to tease, play games and even butt heads, but in the context of a one-on-one play date or immediate family.
He also likes to sit under trees by himself.
Recently, I found out from my son’s teacher that he’s spending the majority of recess time alone.
My alarm bells went off, again. Surely, this was an indication that something is wrong, that he is feeling sad, lonesome or rejected. I considered taking matters into my own hands, calling his teacher and insisting that he be included in play with other kids.
I stopped myself and asked him, “Do you ever feel lonely?”
“No, Mommy,” he said. “I have the sky and the trees.”
His answer floored me. As is often the case, he knows far better than I do what he needs.
Like Ferdinand, my son finds contentment in solitude and nature. He doesn’t perceive himself as alone but in relationship with the entire natural world. Amidst the tumult of school recess, he has found a place where feels peaceful and at ease.
He’s taken a page out of Ferdinand, and so must I.
“His mother saw that he was not lonesome and because she was an understanding mother, even though she was a cow, she let him just sit there and be happy.”
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