Thursday was not a good day. It started off all well and good, but by the end of the day – for the first time in my parenting history – I was alone in my bedroom sobbing. Things just hit at the wrong time.
Mister Man is autistic. He’s very high functioning, and he attends Catholic school with no support, but he’s still autistic. That’s why I pick him up to take him to twice weekly therapies. And yes, when he’s playing or when you observe him long enough, it’s obvious that he’s “different” from the other kids. Most of the time, I can, unconsciously perhaps, pretend that all is well and that maybe he doesn’t truly have autism. He does.
Thursday afternoon, I got an email from his teacher. His teacher doesn’t like email and only sends email if there’s something brewing. Apparently he’s been “making decisions that are having a detrimental impact on his ability to do his work effectively” although there was no other specific information behind that. He also had disappeared on the way to Mass on Wednesday, then jumped out from behind a pillar to scare his teacher on Wednesday. The teacher had provided him with a life learning lesson (part of their discipline) to talk to me about, but he had failed to do so. And Thursday a boy at recess took a ball he was playing with, so he had started hitting the child. Repeatedly. He spent time with the assistant principal and was told he was staying in for recess on Friday and perhaps again today.
I had thought the new year was going well. On Tuesday, Mister Man came home so excited because he had earned four tickets (rewards for outstanding “something” – generally behavior) that day, something he had never done before. Wednesday, he hadn’t earned any more tickets, but he told me it had been a great day and went into detail about what he’d done and who he’d played with. Apparently not. The email burst the bubble of my day. We have talked to him more times than I can count about how he is not allowed to hide and try to scare people because – as part of his autism – he doesn’t get when it’s ok to do that and when it isn’t, so most of the time he tries it, it’s an inappropriate time or place. And he isn’t a hitter. He’s never been a hitter, but this year, behaviors like this are coming out, and I don’t know where they’re coming from.
That afternoon was also to be Mister Man’s first day trying out the “big kid” class at tae kwon do. His dojo has two programs – a little kid program where they start at five years old and learn a lot of the basic moves and the first form, but also start to learn to listen and follow directions well and begin to develop a sense of responsibility before moving to the big kid class at around age 7, once they’ve completed the “black belt” and all its stripes in the little kid class.
When Mister Man tested for his black belt in the little kid class early this summer, there were three kids testing with him – two moving to a red belt, the belt below him, and one moving to a black belt with him. At the end of the test, the instructor asked the other black belt if she wanted to move to the big kid class because she was ready. Mister Man wasn’t even though he’s eight. He’s had all the stripes on his black belt since mid-October, and still the instructor waited. Her goal was to move him over with two or three other students at the start of the new year. Now.
And so he had his first class in the big kid room on Thursday. It was a standard class, plus him, a brand new student to tae kwon do who was obviously younger than him, and a child who is a purple belt (two below where Mister Man is) with only a couple stripes there. As I sat and watched the class, I could feel the tears gathering in my eyes. He didn’t belong there. When the class did kibon – the first form that they learn, and one Mister Man has known for over a year now – he was moving in one direction by the end of it while the entire other class was moving in another. He didn’t have the strength still to keep his knees bent while standing in various positions and awaiting instructions. Between punches, he would have his arm almost straight up in the air, looking around him – even after an instructor would walk to him and manually correct his arm position. His kicks were less kicks and more a foot swatting at something near his ankle, again even after an instructor demonstrated specifically for him and worked with him on them. And when they played the “belt game” at the end of class? That was the worst. Each child was given two very short white belts, which they were told to tuck into their existing belts – picture flag football. Every child did as instructed, except Mister Man. He removed his belt – the only one to do so – and tried tying the short belts, which didn’t work. Then he tried wrapping the belts, both of them at once, around his waist and putting his original belt atop it. The instructor eventually had to come and fix all his belts for him. If he had the awareness to look around and see what the other kids were doing, he could have saved himself this. But looking around and seeing what others are doing is essentially his problem – he doesn’t have that instinct or understanding, and my explaining it to him does nothing.
As the students exited the class at the end, the owner stopped the purple belt. She handed him the new uniform for the big kid class and told him he was going to those classes from now on. Mister Man wasn’t handed a uniform. She told me that she would talk to the instructor of the big kid class to get his feedback. But really, I knew. By the end of the class, I knew what the response from the instructors would be. He doesn’t belong in the big kid class yet. He needs to return to the little kid class – the only child there who has his black belt with all the stripes. He doesn’t need to gain any more skills there, but he needs to continue maturing. And that breaks my heart.
As I climbed into the car, I was already fighting back tears. All I want for my children is for them to find what they’re good at and to be happy. Mister Man adores tae kwon do, and he was so excited to move to the big kid class. Except that he isn’t, but when I asked him, he had no idea that he’d done anything that didn’t warrant him staying in the class. Instead, I had to prep him that maybe he would have to wait a little longer and tried to give him some examples of why.
What’s so frustrating for me is that he is almost a completely neurotypical kid. He’s so close to fitting in and getting it, but yet he doesn’t. He’s a smart little cookie and as sweet as pie, but there are things that he just can’t do, but because he looks and acts so “normal” most of the time, everyone raises their expectations. Coupled with the issues at school, my expectations were fully dashed, and I was crushed.
As we drove home, he told me about what had happened at school, too. When the child took the ball, his first instinct was to hit. He didn’t ask the child for the ball back. He didn’t involve a teacher. He didn’t walk away. All the social stories we work on about what to do in various situations flew out the window, and instead he hit the child. In my head, all I could hear was “What more can I do?” ringing over and over. And for that moment in time, I had no answer.
When we got home, my mom was just arriving with Little Miss. My mom blew off my concerns of the tae kwon do after a sentence with an essentially “oh well” type answer. And then there was a misunderstanding over her pronouncement that Little Miss’s coat was dirty, and my mom refused to tell me the story of why it was dirty. And then she tossed out a catty, “When I make a commitment, I keep it” – something I knew was a dig directly at me.
And my day was done. Fortunately I’d prepared dinner for the wee ones – although it hadn’t finished cooking when I had to leave for tae kwon do, so in desperation I had put it in the oven on a timed cook in the hopes that it would be done when we arrived home. Check it out. Another failure on the day on my part. I put the dinner on the table for the wee ones and excused myself, something I’ve never done before. I couldn’t sit with them. I couldn’t eat dinner. I was just done.
And for the first time in my life as a parent, I went upstairs and closed myself in my bedroom and sat on the floor to cry. I was absolutely and 100 percent feeling sorry for myself, but knowing this didn’t change it. I was so frustrated and so … done. It seemed that no matter my efforts, nothing I was doing was the right step or the right path. By the time the wee ones had finished dinner and started getting themselves ready for bed, I was able to face the world again. I wasn’t happy by any stretch, but I could at least give them their requisite hugs and kisses and tell them I loved them before again retreating to my bedroom for some solitary – because my husband wasn’t home yet, of course – self-pity time.
On Friday, the day dawned bright and sunny. And the good news is that it was a new day. A different day. Nothing had changed but me. I had a good discussion with Mister Man about what he needed to do when he stayed in for recess, and I braced myself for what the instructor would say on Saturday when we went in for our tae kwon do class. I talked with Mister Man with the understanding that Wednesday and Thursday had been really hard days in school and that might have led to some of his issues with the new tae kwon do class. I learned that he was really excited about trying the new class and that he was also very nervous. Put all that together with an autistic child, and of course you have a recipe for disaster. I prepped him that he might have to stay in the little kid class for a bit longer, but I also explained that he could show maturity in talking to the owner and telling her what he had told me, which might grant him the opportunity to try the big kid class again.
Thank goodness for sunny days. Thank goodness there’s always the dawning of a new hope and another try. Thursday is not a pit that I want to live in, nor could I. Because yes, Mister Man does have autism. And I can’t forget that. That was my problem – pretending in my head that everything was “normal” when it wasn’t and can’t ever be. And that’s ok.