Mommy, could I please have a snack?”
“No, not right now. I’m making supper and we’ll all eat in a few minutes.”
Stomp the foot. Wave the hands. “But I am hungry now. And I said yes!”
The full fury of a meltdown loomed. Do I give in, creating an entitled preschooler, thus avoiding the meltdown? Or do I stand firm with my ‘no’ and risk the consequences? His volume grew louder. His fists started to fly.
Most parents know to discipline their son at the threat of a fit. But my son lives with some significant special needs which make for some special parenting challenges. In that moment, I decided to hold my ground and face an all-out meltdown. I ended up holding him in a bear hug so he wouldn’t hurt himself while he came out of it. Somewhere in his preschool mind lives a little boy who desperately needs the same boundaries as any other little boy.
Understanding the Autism
My son didn’t speak his first word until he was almost four. Prior to that, he spoke in fusses and hand gestures. Autism is hard. Parenting a child with autism is just as difficult. Parenting two children with autism—what my husband and I do—is near impossible.
Autism is a disability that primarily affects a person’s social skills, preventing them from fully understanding both verbal and non-verbal communication. My second grader fixates on a subject and won’t let go. He has worked hard, and I mean hard, at not getting upset when someone doesn’t want to hear about traffic lights for the tenth time in an hour.
Autism also affects the synchronism of a person’s five senses. With the sensory part of autism, one or more of taste, touch, smell, sight, and hearing may be extra sensitive or extra dull; either way, those five senses are not developing together like they should. In our family, I have two boys, yet the house stays mostly silent during the days. As a writer, it’s great. I can get a lot of work done. But I know the house stays quiet because they can’t handle loud noise. It’s more than a general dislike of loud noise; they hear it as pain.
Growing in Ability and Grace
Every child is born broken, in desperate need of a savior. The Bible makes it clear that we all fall short of the glory of God, and only through the sacrifice of Jesus can we even be in his presence. We can look at children as innocent, but only because they haven’t yet been exposed to the evils of the world. Their sin nature is evident in the first time they test their parents and we have to tell them ‘no.’ As parents, we are the first demonstration of our savior to our children.
As a child grows up, they understand more and more of their own actions so we put restrictions in place. As a baby, they remain in one room, with gates preventing them from exploring the house. Why? Because they don’t understand the safety factor yet. By elementary school, they’re walking home by themselves. By high school, maybe driving. As children grow, they understand the world around them and can keep themselves safe.
A child with autism doesn’t grow in understanding the same way. I cannot let my elementary-aged son walk through a store without holding my hand. The sensory-overload part of this disability still triggers his flight response and he takes off running. I am the mom with two boys, clearly able to walk by themselves, strapped in the front of a double cart at the grocery store and walking in the dead center of each aisle so they don’t knock everything over. It’s the only way we can get through a store safely. But we do it, moving slowly and constantly talking through what’s going on. Why? Because someday they will need to learn how to do this for themselves.
Discerning True Rebellion
So where’s the balance? I’ve had to learn the difference between an honest temper tantrum and a true sensory-overload meltdown. I constantly have to discern between honest rebellion, which merits a true timeout, and a lack of understanding. Rules and schedules are visibly displayed because while both of my boys read, they often don’t comprehend verbal instruction.
We’re one of the lucky ones. We see our children making progress across the board. Autism for us means that they are academically advanced (how many kids really teach themselves to read at age 3?) yet they struggle to carry on a conversation.
Truthfully, before having children, I judged the parents with fussy children at the store who gave in to every wish of their children. I thought if they were a little more consistent with discipline, that the tantrums could be easier. And then God gave me not just one child with autism, but two.
These children are not rebellious. They certainly don’t need more discipline or a bunch of adults constantly correcting them. They need to see the creative love of Jesus. These children are created in the image of God with a unique view on the world. It’s up to us to see the world through their eyes and lead them to the open arms of our Jesus.
Cover image by Jenna Christina.