Thursday, October 4, 2012

A Roller Coaster Autism Day

Today started out as a delightful day for me. The last really warm day for the season, most likely, I joined a friend at the park so our kids could play. We both had a lot on our to-do lists but snow is in the forecast this week so seizing the moment seemed a good idea. After getting home, I worked my way through that list and was feeling on top of things.

Then the phone rang. It was Michele, my son’s special education teacher, and immediate I could hear it in her voice. Something was wrong. I asked, as I often do, “Is he having a tough day?” With autism there are sometimes just days when his emotions are closer to the surface or his odd behaviors more prevalent. She said he was and started to tell me about the two, very different events that had impacted Ryan’s day, both connected by one thing—autism.

In Ryan’s reading class, his teacher had been reading aloud. Now, you need to understand that kids with autism have difficulty understanding figures of speech. Say, “it rained cats and dogs” and they look for pets. Today it was his teacher reading the sentence, “He was a god in high school.” Ryan freaked out. He interrupted, loudly, saying that he could not listen to this story. He declared, getting more and more agitated, “I am a Christian and there is only one God!” The teacher tried to explain but he could not let it go. “There is only one God!” They had to take him to the special ed room to calm down. Michele patiently explained to him the non-literal nature of what the sentence meant.

This story made me laugh. It made me feel that Ryan was getting the essentials of our faith firmly grounded enough in his mind and his heart that he protested heresy. And yes, I knew that his disruption was not appropriate and that he needed to understand what the sentence meant. But in this outburst was the truth he knew was worth arguing over—my faith is important enough to defend and there is only one God. Both of those are huge.

But next Michele went on to tell me about the second incident that disrupted Ryan’s day. At lunch time, Ryan eats and then goes outside into the courtyard to walk around. He gets lost in his own imagination and paces while enjoying the sunshine. That’s always made me a little sad for him. He has no friends. But since he has autism, that fact doesn’t bother him. It bothers me more. But nevertheless, this is his routine and what helps him cope with a day full of sensory input and noise and kids who do not function in the world like he does. The solitude helps him reset to take on the rest of the day.

Today, he was followed out by four boys, one of whom already had been in trouble for picking on Ryan in math class. They picked up his lunch sack and began a cruel game of keep-away. At that moment, Michele just happened to walk out into the hall by a window. She says it was luck. I know it was God. She saw Ryan yelling at them to stop and give him the sack and them laughing as he got more upset. As she told me this part of the story, her voice cracked and we both began to cry at the same time. She said she went out and put a stop to it and took all four boys to the office. She got Ryan calmed down in her room and left the troublemakers to the principal.

The principal is new this year. I’m still getting to know him. What I found out about him today earned him 
some respect. When he found out about this bullying behavior, he was incensed. Michele told me when she left the office he was threatening to have them arrested for harassment. I called to make sure that wasn’t the punishment. While I was hurt for my son and angry at these thoughtless kids, I wanted to voice my opinion that the punishment should fit the crime.

I had a nice talk with the principal and I heard from the secretary that he had indeed put the fear of God in the boys as there were some tears. The boys were not arrested but were made to apologize to Ryan, individually and given some consequences along with the promise should it happen again, handcuffs and the school police officer would be involved.

As the day ended, I walked up to school to walk Ryan home. I had spent some time that afternoon crying for my son. I hurt for him. And I was struggling with my fears for his future, always near the back of my mind. My friend, Chelsea so wisely reminded me that Jeremiah 29:11 applies to Ryan too. “’For I know the plans I have for you,’ says the Lord. ‘Plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.” NIV

Ryan was fine when I got there. He was calm as we walked home and I asked him about his day and the lunch incident. Sometimes his autism means he can’t let things go. This was not one of those times. He was fine with the boys apologizing to him the next day. He said he wanted to make sure their parents knew what they had done. We talked too about the reading class moment. He said, “I forgot to take my break in the squeeze machine before class. I think that’s why I got upset.” Sometimes he is very self-aware. I explained figures of speech again and he seemed ok with it.

At dinner, Ryan prayed and thanked God for a good day and asked that tomorrow would be a little better. It was all I could do not to cry. In my heart I thanked God that the day’s events hadn’t wounded my special son more. Life can be cruel. But Ryan and my friend are both right—there is one God and He holds the future in His hands…even with autism.


  1. Beautiful reflection on some very tough stuff! You must be so proud of your son. It sounds like he has some good people who have his back.