Yesterday, I sat on the bench outside the dojo watching Mister Man’s Tae Kwon Do class. I knew it wasn’t going to be a good class for him before it started. I could tell he was tired and that his focus wouldn’t be there.
Before the class started, instead of sitting, he was folded forward pushing his head into the floor and rocking. When the instructors began class and asked the children to sit at attention, he was facing sideways and not on his number. Internally, I groaned.
I debated pulling him from the class to avoid it being frustrated for him, but I didn’t want to embarrass him. And we’d had a chat before the class about the behavior that was expected of him – he had to wait for the instructors to demonstrate something rather than doing it on his own in his own way and he had to pay attention and do what they asked the first time – or he knew that he’d take a time out from the class. I sat back and waited, crossing my fingers.
When they did the straddle stretch, he couldn’t stay still and stretch. With relief, I saw that he wasn’t walking back and forth on his hands and feet as he’d done in previous classes, nor was he picking things off the floor and putting him in his mouth. But he had to stim. I watched his knees bouncing up and down as he “stretched” with the rest of the class.
When the orange belts lined up to work through their skills, he couldn’t keep his feet still when doing the punches and blocks. He was dancing from side to side as he punched, as I watched the other two students stand still and do their punches firm and straight. As the punches got more complex, his got more sloppy and he moved more. My heart ached to help him, but the dojo is his ground, not mine.
The other parents were also watching their children – and I’m sure mine. I try to stop myself from apologizing for him sometimes when he has particularly bad classes, and in the grand scheme of things, this wasn’t too bad. He even earned a stripe for his blocks.
I have the same moments at school, although thankfully this year has started off great, and his teacher is very encouraging. And we had a great playdate on Sunday, which was so nice to see.
But there are other times when you can look at Mister Man and just see that he’s off and that he’s different from other kids. There are times where he just doesn’t know where the line is and does something that he doesn’t realize is inappropriate. When he gets excited, he jumps in place and sometimes grabs himself – something no one else we know does. When he talks to you, he doesn’t look you in the eyes, and he sometimes wanders off while still talking.
I know that there are times when the parents look at him and wonder. I worry that what he does will discourage his classmates from wanting to be friends with him. I fear that their parents won’t want to have playdates with him and that the birthday invitations will fall away to nothing.
Mister Man is autistic. He’s very high functioning, and there are times you’d never know – but those are only times. There is no cure for autism, but we do what we can to support him – in fact, I leave the house in twenty minutes to pick him up from school to take him to a speech and language group – and our therapies help, but he will always be different.
His teachers all know. They’ve seen the copies of the reports from the pediatric neurologist and the occupational and behavioral therapists. We’ve discussed recommendations to make the classroom an easier place for him – long after we’ve debated what school is most appropriate for him and where he’ll thrive.
Telling the other parents is something I’ve hesitated over. I worry that there are parents who will judge him for his autism and see that first and foremost rather than the sweet boy who lives beneath. I worry that revealing a diagnosis like this will scare them, that ignorance and fear will drive them away from not only Mister Man but from me. I worry that the diagnosis will mean they won’t trust Mister Man around their children because of what they’ve heard elsewhere.
But at the same time, ignorance is one of the biggest problems. If people could see and know Mister Man first and simply recognize that his autism is a part of him like his thick hair or his hazel eyes, that it provides challenges to him for everything from sports to social situations but that we work through them, maybe just maybe they will accept him and help their children accept him. And maybe they’ll accept another child they wouldn’t have otherwise.
So slowly, one by one as I see the moms in a setting where we are discussing our children already, I am mentioning the autism to the moms. I explain that he is a high functioning autistic boy and that there are things that are hard for him, things that make him different. I explain how hard social situations are for him but how much he wants to have friends.
Interestingly, most of the time, I’ve gotten a surprised reaction. Apparently the parents haven’t noticed how different he is, and they just see him as a sweet child. Maybe I’m hypersensitive to all the differences, constantly comparing him to the other children around him to see what they’re doing and what he’s doing and how closely he matches up.
Maybe in tomorrow’s Tae Kwon Do class, I need to watch him and revel in the fact that he loves to be there. I need to focus on the fact that he learned his elbow series and memorized it after two classes. I need to look at the other children who are goofing off and not earning any stripes because they can’t remember the moves and realize that Mister Man is making great strides and that no child is perfect.
And so tomorrow, I plan to walk in with my head held high and a smile on my face as I watch Mister Man work through his skills and try to earn a stripe for his kicks.
This post was inspired by the book “Cowboy & Wills” by Monica Holloway, the selection for the Left To Write book club. I received a copy of this book to write the post, which is not a review (go read the book though – I cried but I loved it!) but instead inspired a post. There is no compensation involved.