I'm James Guttman, father of two children. One six year old (non verbal) and one nine year old (nonstop verbal). My mission is to share stories about his family, understanding autism, life after a quintuple bypass at 35, and overall topics that he feels might resonate with others.
I started noticing gray hairs when I was still in my twenties. It was actually cool at first. I felt older and more distinguished until they started to multiply. Then, it became kind of annoying. Once a barber even mentioned it. I told that story to a group of friends.
Yeah, so the barber goes, “You have lots of gray hairs.”
I’m not sure why I was telling them all this but it probably wasn’t the most interesting evening. As soon as I said it, though, our friend Lamppost Mark stood up. We called him that because he once broke his hand fighting a lamppost. He was a big and volatile club bouncer doused in Long Island attitude.
He shook his head back and forth in an exaggerated motion like the Cheetos cat. His eyes were bugging out of his head.
He said that to you?!
His eyes grew even bigger. The whole reaction was so overdone that I thought he may have misheard how the barber attacked me with a knife.
Bro! I would have punched him right in the face if he said that to me! Are you kidding?! You didn’t hit him?!
And these are the type of people I grew up around. They’d hear someone say something rude to them and lean in with a smile, “Yo. That’s a broken nose, buddy.” Then the rudeness would stop. The more of us that were out together, the quieter those around us seemed to be.
The craziest part of all of this was that I seriously spent a while after that wondering if I should have punched that barber in the face. Mark had been so strong in his conviction that this was an unforgivable offense, it made me wonder if I had gone soft in my early 20s. How could I let this elderly Russian barber get away with that? Should I have punched him?
Well, hereI am at 40 and I can definitely answer that with a no. I should not have punched the barber in the face for pointing out that he could see color. That’s nuts to even type out and the fact that I wondered about it is scary. It makes me question my whole mindset back then and realize I came within a hair (pun not intended, but awesome) of negatively affecting my future self on a daily basis. It would have taken one off-day in the wrong place at the wrong time to have lost it all before it even began.
Then again, my life today has more worth losing than it did then. “Losing it all” in 1998 meant my Playstation 1 and a few blacklight posters. The thought of doing a self-destructive act for the sake of “pride” wasn’t all that inconceivable. It is, however, terrifying in hindsight.
That’s just how it was back then. We were angry over-reactors literally headbutting the walls at the bar. Every glance from a stranger or crossed word from an acquaintance was a reason to defend your honor. Paranoia mixed with youthful discontent to make for some bizarre battles. Sometimes our aggression came out for reasons that made no sense at all.
There are countless examples, but my favorite was from the time I was talking to my friend Chrisin his living room. Mid-sentence, he stopped speaking and looked over my head through the bay window behind; carefully watching as a man walked down the sidewalk. I looked at him as he looked at the stranger for a moment before asking his reason. His reply still doesn’t make sense to me today.
I’m watching this freakin’ guy walking down my block. People don’t just walk down my block, man. What’s this guy doing?
I openly laughed at him for this – like ha-ha in his face. He didn’t seem to care though. To him, this was a big deal. While I was all for irrational aggression, it felt like a suspicious step too far.
Of course, it only felt that way until our friend Mike who lived down the street came over an hour later. He walked into the house and – I swear to you – this was the first thing he said.
Yo. Did you see that guy walking down the street? What the hell’s up with that?!
Chris shot me a look and turned back to Mike.
I know, right?!
Of course, in all of this, I’m glossing over tales of my own insane behaviors from this time period, but they were there. It doesn’t take a college course in psychology to realize that we all had deep-rooted issues with being disrespected. To me, the thought that someone would treat me in a way less than reverent sent me into a crazy rage. I worried about it possibly happening all the time and was always on the lookout for the next opportunity to fight some epic battle.
I’ve eventually learned to temper my actions with wisdom, but that doesn’t mean that the voice still doesn’t exist in my head. To this day, I will still encounter a situation where I need to stop for a moment to silently ask myself, “Is it appropriate to freak out about this?” The answer is almost always a no.
Still, there are times when the new me goes on autopilot. I’ll find myself standing at the supermarket as the guy in front of me on the express line starts to put more than 12 items on the conveyor belt. That’s when I hear Al Pacino from Scent of a Woman screaming about how if I was the man I was 20 years ago, “I’d take a bloooooow torch to this place!”
But I’m not the man I was 20 years ago and thankfully that supermarket is still standing. I’m the man I am today. I’m actually grateful for that and, while I would still defend my family’s honor with rabid ferocity, I don’t search for opportunities to do so. When someone disrespects me in a way that needs handling, I know it and I handle it. That hasn’t been the case much at all. It’s amazing how little drama you find when you stop looking for it.
I sometimes wonder what the me of 1998 would say about the 40 year old, post-heart surgery, beacon of zen balance I am today. To be honest, I think he’d be relieved. I may let a few more things slide today than I did then, but let’s be honest. A rude stare or impolite action probably won’t kill me, but walking around with that tension and constant worry on my shoulders almost certainly will.
It’s easy to understand why people would say that my seven-year-old non-verbal son “suffers from Autism”. After all, Autism appears to affect so many aspects of our life together. Every time we take Lucas out of the house, there seems to be a laundry list of worries swirling in my head.
What if he has a meltdown? What if even his routine outbursts annoy people near us? Will someone say something to us? Will they have a right to? Even if they have a right to, will I overreact like a nutcase and mentally scar my family by tossing chairs around? What if we have to leave early? What if he wanders off and knocks into someone? What if he takessomeone’s drink or food? What if we have to get a stroller and it’s too big to comfortably walk without knocking into people? What if we’re asked to leave or stared at by rude strangers? What if, well, anything?
With a list like that, an outsider would almost definitely insist that “yes”. All of that points to the fact that my son suffers from Autism.
But, it only appears that way until you realize that, with the exception of the first item on that last, none of those things are things that affect Lucas. Every single thing after the meltdown is about how someone else is affected.
Go back. Take a look. They’re all about how our family’s feelings or some nameless stranger who I have projected all my fears upon. They’re about scenarios that haven’t happened and anxiety that, while prevalent in my own brain many times, doesn’t even occur to my son as I lace up his shoes.
Nope. He’s smiling and holding his iPad mini up to his ear as he listens to Elmo sing-shout that same song that I’ve heard hundreds of times. He’s grinning, clapping, and patting me on the head without a care in the world. Every day is an adventure and, while he might not always be on board for every activity we plan, it never seems like he’s ever suffering from anything.
Of course, I can’t speak for everyone with Autism, just my son. But when it comes to Lucas, stares and rude comments don’t affect him in the least. For a stranger’s callous nature to really bother my little guy, they would have to really do something major. Of course, I would have already started throwing chairs by then so we would never reach that level anyway.
Rude behaviors from others don’t bug Lucas. They bug me. Sure, it might bug me because I don’t want someone to disrespect my boy, but it’s not because he would be emotionally hurt or even understand what was happening. It’s more like “who the hell does this mook think they are to talk to my kid like that?!”
Lucas does his own thing. People don’t disturb him unless he allows them to. I admire him for that. Ironically, it’s his Autism, the very thing that some say he’s “suffering from”, that contributes most to that aspect of his personality we all should try to emulate.
This is the part where I’m supposed to tie all of that together and say that the real people suffering are me, my family, or those anonymous strangers sitting two tables over at The Olive Garden…but I won’t. I won’t because it’s not true. What’s true is that no one suffers from my son’s Autism.
I get how it might seem that way at first glance. It’s easy to look at that laundry list of worries from earlier and assume they are a testament to the harsh realities of caring for a special needs child. In actuality, they are an example of how parents in general have to approach the world. Sure, Lucas has a unique list of concerns but so does his sister, who isn’t on the spectrum. I might worry that his outbursts will disturb someone in public, but never whether kids are trying to peer pressure him into bullying a friend. That’s her thing. There are unique responsibilities associated with every child – Autism or not.
These random strangers aren’t suffering either. I know this because, as the parent to a child who can sometimes wind up in someone else’s business, I tend to overdo it when it comes to keeping an eye on him in public. Like any parent should do, I make sure he doesn’t cause a disturbance when there’s a reasonable expectation of quiet. It’s not like we plop down in the middle of a silent library and allow Lucas to scream at the top of his lungs. These “outbursts” I worry so much about are scattered shouts at an already loud restaurant or waiting in line at Target. They’re managed and maintained more than many other kids I see running around. We make sure of that.
Even on those days when I do miss a moment here and there, the most that someone will be disturbed by my son might be an unexpected noise or a casual tap on the arm. While I do desperately try to avoid allowing it to happen, it’s truly nothing in the grand scheme of things. If such a small act in such a short time from such a sweet kid causes a major hassle to a stranger, then they really need to toughen up anyway. That ain’t suffering. Go churn some butter or something. You’re soft.
Not every diagnosis is a dire sentence that needs grief-stricken language associated with it. There are children out there right now who are really suffering. My son is not one of them and I’m thankful every day for that. He has Autism, he doesn’t suffer from it. Smiles, happiness, and carefree attitude aren’t things that cause anguish. They’re an approach to life that all of us should strive to have.
I struggle with self-doubt, as many others do too. It’s not a crippling sense of inadequacy that’s constantly there, but, if I had to make a wager, I’d say the little voice in my head that cheers me on shows up far less than the big voice that tells me I’m going to fall on my face.
I’ve tried to avoid listening to that voice of doubt. It’s harder to tune out than it seems, though. To block out a nagging narrative in your own brain can feel like you’re blocking out the unspoken truth. While I’ve managed to overcome it most times, there has still been plenty of moments when it has gotten the best of me. I can admit that.
When you have kids to guide through the world, however, that negative voice inside is still there, but it can no longer be the dominant force in times of challenge. As a parent, I can’t let it.
I’m sure many other parents would nod along to the sentiment of tuning out the bad thoughts for the good of your children. It sounds like some obvious inspirational line like, “you work hard for your babies” or “life isn’t about just you anymore” and all those sweet things that they put on bookmarks,. In practice, however, it’s a pretty amazing feat to witness.
I’ve seen it firsthand a few times these past few weeks. In an effort to stress healthy choices, I signed my daughter Olivia and I up for a 5K run at the end of July. It was on a whim and one of those decisions that I half-regret right away and then talk myself back into over time. I knew it was beneficial for us both and it would allow me to introduce some positive habits to her life. Sure, it would be a lot of work for me, but when you have kids, life isn’t about just you anymore. I read that on a bookmark.
Last week during our “training”, we took a jog around the neighborhood before wandering into the local school playground. As we approached, Olivia spotted her metallic blue fourth-grade gym class nemesis.
Ugh. Monkey bars. I hate the monkey bars. I can’t even do one.
What do you mean? Like climbing overhead one, two, three – like that?
I mimed hand-over-hand-over-head movement. She nodded.
Yeah. My friends can do it. I’ll never learn.
This was when I just started speaking. I didn’t think about anything that was about to come out of my mouth and, like the 5K entry form, I almost immediately regretted it.
Olivia. Listen. It’s easy. I’ll teach you how to do it. You’re going to do one right now. OK? Right now. Get up there. Let’s do this.
She scowled in disbelief and, as soon as she started scaling that ladder, my head realized what was happening and sent the voice inside of it to chastise me.
Uh, dude? You can’t teach her this. You don’t know how to do it. When was the last time you touched a monkey bar?!
It’s true. I’m 40 and haven’t really dealt with monkey bars in a few decades. In fact, the thought of “monkey bars” conjures up images of tiny chimpanzees trying to pick up other chimpanzees over a round of banana beers. It makes me smile but also reminds me that I had no idea what the hell I just agreed to become a teacher of.
I carefully watched as she demonstrated her jungle gym proficiency and it wasn’t good. She could start off by hanging there but when it came time to reach, her body would twist in the wind and spin around backwards. I stared as she would hang, leap, spin, and fall. That was the order of events and, with the exception of a frustrated groan at the end, it went on that way for a bit.
The situation seemed dire and I started to craft ways to back out of it. After all, as she explained, she had been trying for a year and “never even did one monkey bar”. So what type of arrogance inside of me thought I could show her in ten minutes? I started crafting dad-like pieces of advice about how “we can’t learn things immediately” or how “practice makes perfect.” I didn’t want to go that route, but it started to feel inevitable.
I genuinely feared how I would look to her by abandoning the monkey training without a successful go. Sensing that her arms would soon be worn out, I watched closely and tried to study her form for any sign of weakness. Then, just as I was about to give up, I tried one last change.
Hey. You’re a leftie, right? Maybe the reason you’re turning your body around is because you’re leading with your right. If you reach first with your left hand, the momentum could carry you forward.
I could tell she wasn’t sold on the idea, but reluctantly agreed to try. She climbed up again and reached with her left hand first.
And that’s the story of how she did her “first monkey bar”.
Her eyes bugged out of head with excitement the moment she sailed to the next rung. It was an unexpected joy that was comparable to a large lotto ticket win. My daughter was beaming.
I did it! Daddy, I did it!
I gave a dad grin.
See? I knew we could do it.
Between us, though, I totally didn’t know we could do it. In fact, I was pretty sure we couldn’t, but she doesn’t know that. She doesn’t know that I have the same voice in my head that she does. It’s the same one that tells me a task is impossible and it’s best not to try. When it comes to making her better, though, I work against that voice for both us. It’s what a Dad does.
Believing your kids can do anything is easy. Believing in your own ability to show them how to do those things is hard. If I can manage to do that, though, then there’s no limit to what they – and we – can accomplish.
It’s easy to feel guilty as a parent. If your kid gets a bad grade, you search for how you contributed to the lack of preparation. If they forget their lunch or misplace their favorite toy, it becomes your mission to make things right. Deep down, you feel responsible for many things that are often out of your control. It’s just how it is.
Having a non-verbal son on the Autism spectrum brings on a new variety of those situations. I’ve heaped plenty of blame on my own shoulders, especially in the early days of his diagnosis, for many reasons that would be considered unreasonable.
I don’t mean guilt over his Autism. Sure, I feel a responsibility for that, but it doesn’t eat me up alive or even seem all that illogical to feel that way. After all, he’s my son. It doesn’t mean that Autism is the worst thing in the world to happen to him. But if anything makes him struggle even one percent more even one percent of the time, I would put that on myself. He’s mine and a guilt like that is reasonable.
I’m talking about the illogical guilt I wouldn’t see coming. It’s the guilt that creeps up on you. Your brain tells you that it’s not real, even as you’re feeling it, but it doesn’t make you feel it any less. The best example I can give is something that, believe it or not, I have never spoken about to anyone. It was a moment that passed and one no one has ever brought up since.
When Lucas was a baby, I would narrate him to the family. It was a slick little high-pitched voice straight out of an old Bugs Bunny cartoon. At the end of our weekdays, when the family would converse, I would do his voice and put him in the conversation.
Waddaya say dere, Fam? I made a poopie in da ol’ dye-pa today. Wha’did you do dere, ol’ pal o’ mine?
Everyone would laugh as I would take his little arm and move it back and forth with each word. He may have been a baby, but Lucas had a say in our nightly conversations. We smiled. He smiled. It was a big friggin’ smilefest all around.
Now I know I’m not the first dad on Earth to make his infant “talk” like a puppet. Many parents do it and normally stop once the baby starts talking. So that was the unspoken plan. I would give Lucas a 1920s carnival barker voice until the day that he finally said his first word. He was tiny, but they grow up so fast and I knew it that day was right around the corner.
But it wasn’t. That day never came.
As the months ticked by, it started to become evident that the wait was becoming much longer than expected. We began to focus more and more on his missed milestones behind closed doors. The meetings and evaluations were piling up and each one rocked me a bit more than the last. I wasn’t sure what, if anything, I could do to help him. I just knew I felt powerless. My daughter Olivia, at about five years old, wasn’t wise to any of that though. To her, it was life as usual and her baby brother was doing great.
We were all sitting around the dining room table on one of those mental anguish evenings when Olivia looked up at him in his little high chair.
He looked at her. I thought that was it. Then she turned to me.
Daddy! Make Lucas talk!
Those words ripped through me like a knife. They still do to this day. She had no idea how deep that statement was and what it really meant to me, especially at the time. It was every piece of my self-absorbed guilt all in one sentence. That line that made me feel like I couldn’t fix the biggest obstacle our family had ever faced. I sat there dumbfounded. She repeated it.
Daddy! Make Lucas talk!
I put on my Dad face and hid any form of deeper turmoil.
No, Olivia. You know what? Maybe I should stop. After all, he’s getting older and soon he needs to speak for himself. I don’t want him to think that I’ll be doing it for him all the time.
She wasn’t thrilled with the idea, but eventually nodded and moved on. I didn’t though. The guilt started almost immediately and focused on so many different aspects of my behavior. Suddenly, this fun game of making my baby talk felt like I had been mocking him this whole time. I know it didn’t appear that way, wasn’t meant that way, and couldn’t have possibly been that way since I could never have predicted the future. Yet, it still felt that way to me. I became angry at myself for it.
Then, on top of that, I felt guilty over how I had been arrogant in my assumption that he would one day speak. Like most parents, I pictured a future where he would wake up and say, “Hi Dad. How’s it going?” So there was no danger to narrating him as an infant because, eventually, he’d speak on his own. To me, it felt like I had become the cause of his lack of his speech. I wasn’t sure how, but I worried I had hurt my favorite boy in the world even though my reasoning made no sense at all.
But to me, it did. Some days, it still does.
Moments like that are more abundant than some may realize and they all fall under the umbrella of the biggest guilt of all. It’s the feeling that I, as a parent to a child with missed milestones, should always be doing something to help. Doing what, you ask? I have no idea. Just something.
After all, parents don’t let their kids fall behind the universal checklist of life, right? You hear all sorts of stories about kids who didn’t talk until their dedicated parents “worked day and night” to teach them their first words.
Yet, here I am, it’s night and I’m watching a rerun of Family Guy while he’s not speaking. It’s all my fault. It’s like casually reading a book while your house is on fire. How can you focus on anything else?
Logically, I know that “working day and night” is meant as a metaphor. The world doesn’t work that way. Nonstop lessons and work are common in montages for 80s movies and cake mix commercials, but not real life. It was be insane to monopolize every waking moment that Lucas and I have with verbal exercises. Why then, did I still have these knots in my stomach?
It took time to realize that my goal in life is to make my children the best they can be. That doesn’t have to involve all-day word practice because, to be frank, my son is already the best he cane be. Sure, we can work on advancing certain skills he has, but that shouldn’t consume either of our lives. It should be a part of our lives. I know that now, although sometimes I still have to force myself to remember.
My son is non-verbal. He’s not a house on fire or someone in need of fixing. The responsibility I feel has more to do with me than it does with him. All of these emotions really boil down to me wanting to carry him past any struggles and striving to give him the best life I can.
It took a while to realize but that illogical guilt might not have ever really been about “guilt” at all. It’s about wanting my son to be happy and making sure he has the happiest life possible. Anything that could seem to fall short of that falls on my shoulders and, as the Dad, I’m OK with that. It means that all of these moments of “guilt” were never real guilt at all. They were all just reminders of how much I love him.
There are people out there right now who have wronged me and have never faced retribution for it. They didn’t wind up sad, alone, or even live to regret their awful actions. Sometimes people do bad things and still go on to live consequence-free lives. The universe just never gives them that slap upside the head that we all promise each other it will.
Karma happens constantly in movies and TV shows, but not as much in the actual world. In the actual world, Biff Tannen’s car doesn’t always wind up filled with manure as his punishment for chasing Marty McFly though 1955 Hill Valley. In many cases, Biff catches Marty, beats him to death with his bare hands, and then enjoys a Pepsi served by Goldie Wilson. Sometimes our fables don’t have morals.
I had to teach this lesson to my daughter a few weeks ago when she and a friend, Kelly, got into trouble for playing a “funny joke” on another friend. I should clarify, only my daughter got into trouble and the joke, while not really mean, wasn’t all that funny. I was the one who found out and, even though the situation was defused, I made Olivia go to bed early because she hadn’t come to tell me right away when their friend became upset. It was a very dad moment.
My wife and I agreed not to tell Kelly’s parents. After all, it was a small issue and one that was handled right away. We were also protecting Olivia’s reputation and trying to avoid stitches, ditches, and all of that fun stuff. Of course, my daughter didn’t think any of this was fair and expressed it.
It’s not fair that I had to go to bed early and nothing happens to Kelly.
You’re right. In fact, nothing might ever happen to Kelly.
I know. She’s not getting punished.
No, I mean nothing might ever happen to Kelly. Ever. You won’t hear this often, but you know how adults always say, “She’ll get hers one day” or “she won’t learn this important lesson now and she’ll grow up to be a worse person because of it?”
That might not happen. Sometimes people grow up and nothing bad happens to them at all. That’s why you don’t do the right thing just to avoid getting in trouble or so someone else gets punished one day. You do the right thing to do the right thing. You do it so that other people do the right thing for you. You do it so you, and only you, become a better person. Nothing about what you learn today has anything to do with Kelly and what she learns.
I felt like I was teaching us both something in that moment. It was a lesson that life had been slowly putting into my brain, but I never realized was there. It was both cynical and beautiful all at once.
It makes me think of the first time I heard the words to John Lennon’s “Imagine” in elementary school music class. I was so hung up on the line, “Imagine there’s no heaven.” Up until that age, I never even contemplated such a thing. The way I viewed that question wasn’t religious, but more symbolic. It was asking how would we all interact without the thought of an eventual sense of justice.
Even people who don’t believe in heaven believe in some sort of universal judgment system. They’ll pat you on the shoulder after you’ve been knocked down and promise, “Don’t worry. They’ll get theirs in the end.” It’s basically heaven without the harps but delivers that same warm feeling of revenge we yearn for in those painful moments.
It seems that so much about picking ourselves up from a bad situation relies on those who knocked us down getting knocked down themselves because of it. But what if none of that happens? What if the bad guys don’t get their due? Could you still get up, move forward, and grow?
It took a while for me to figure out that by making the downfall of my enemies one of the steps in my healing process, I was sabotaging myself. Rather than patting myself on the back for bouncing back, I was wringing my hands in anger over how “unfair” it is that those who did me wrong didn’t wind up getting their just desserts from some invisible force that I don’t have any control over. It served no purpose other than to turn a positive life change for me into a frustrating negative demand on other people.
Bettering myself has nothing to do with other people. I don’t soar higher because someone else falls and I don’t confuse smug satisfaction for upwards momentum. I do what I do for me and for the people who treat me well. Those who don’t fit into one of those two categories, don’t factor too highly on my list of inspirations for life changing moments.
The people who do me wrong in life might end up as perfectly happy people in the end. It doesn’t feel right, but it’s the way it is. If I can accept that, only then will I be just fine too.
I never wanted to be the parent hovering over his kids while they played. I, just like so many others, decried the downfall of society as moms and dads prevented their kids from getting any possible bump they could. After all, the bruises, boo-boos, and dusting yourself off again are all part of growing up. I know they were for me.
So when my daughter was born, I made it a priority to let her have her own fun. Dad didn’t need to helicopter over her head and make sure all was fair for her in the swingset wars. Sure, I watched from afar mostly, but she grew on her own, played on her own, and learned from her own mistakes.
I wanted to take the same approach to my son but learned early on that it might not be entirely possible. As a non-verbal child with Autism, Lucas is more apt to take off on a moment’s notice. We’ve had more than a few public situations where he would begin his trademark clapping while slowly walking away backwards. I’d find myself calling, “Lucas. No. Come on, buddy. Lucas. Where are you going? Lucas? Come back here. Lucas! No. Come back.” People would watch me like a stage show and I would watch as his tiny body got tinier and tinier as he moonwalked into the horizon. It all would lead to me doing a frustrated sprint to catch him before he applauds himself backwards right out of the neighborhood.
The day I realized that hovering near my son wasn’t a choice, but a necessity was during one of our infamous Music Togetherclasses. That class represents a strange time for me because, when started, we didn’t have an Autism diagnosis, but when we were finished, we did. I think of those musical hours as a transition period and, while it was probably a nice Saturday morning distraction for some of the parents, it was a major time period for our family and an introduction to how life was going to play out.
I wanted Lucas to enjoy the class just like the other children. I’d encourage him to play with the instruments or put the scarves back in the bag during clean-up. He usually showed little interest and would either lay on the floor with his hands nestled behind his head like the doodle of a sleeping stick man or else he’d try to run for the door. On those running days, I’d simply wrestle him back to our mat where, through giggles, he’d try to wiggle away for the rest of the hour. Most of the time, I was exhausted by the drive home.
As I mentioned though, it was still early on and I was still figuring out what he was and wasn’t capable of. Like most parents, though, I wanted to give my child the benefit of the doubt as often as possible. The last thing I wanted was to stifle his independent spirit. So, one day as he started to crawl away from me before class began, I let him.
Keep in mind, my son was a fairly large two year old. People in the class were obviously starting to notice his lack of spoken and receptive language, but never mentioned it. In fact, they had all been nothing but nice, so when he scuttled over to the husband and wife with the infant baby, I smiled. They smiled too. There were smiles all around. As their little girl was rolling around on the mat below, Lucas popped up right in the middle of this happy family and looked up with a huge grin. From across the circle, I watched in joy as the chuckling mom leaned right into his face and said, “Well, hello there.”
Then, as I continued to watch from across the circle, my joy jolted into horror. I sat stunned as my son put both hands behind his head and, in his typical stickman position, laid down…right on their baby.
Yes. You read that right. He laid down on their baby. Like every story I write about here, this is completely true. It isn’t a funny anecdote I imagined in the shower this morning. This was real and this really happened in my life. It’s a sight I will never forget. With a pivot of his body and two hands tucked behind his head, Lucas laid his large noggin straight down onto this tiny baby’s stomach like he was soaking up rays on the beach. It was mortifying on levels I never even knew were possible.
The nearly newborn baby surprisingly didn’t cry, but the audible gasps around the room filled that silence. Both parents opened their eyes wide and sat there speechless. I sprung from my seat and snatched him up. After some very awkward apologies, we took part in an even more awkward hour of singing and tried to put the whole experience out of our heads.
He hadn’t done it on purpose or, thankfully, caused any damage. In fact, none of the moments I push to prevent him from doing are ever done maliciously. Rather, they are just Lucas doing what Lucas does. He sees the world through his own lens and there are times that his actions aren’t acceptable. Sometimes they can be awkward moments like baby-head surfing while others can be distracted moments of danger that could leave him hurt if I’m not there to lend a hand.
That’s why I do it. Make no mistake, just because I’m chasing him through a playground or running after him in a department store, that doesn’t mean I want to be. Much like those parents I’m speaking to at the time, who have their own kids darting around in circles while they analyze the latest episode of The Bachelor with each other, I want to let my son do his own thing. Who doesn’t? Because of that, it’s caused me to me abandon my better judgment at times to give us both a bit of “freedom”.
Trial and error has taught me that’s not always the right choice. Lucas’s ability to take off on his own doesn’t come down to a definite list of do’s and don’ts. It requires observation on my part and some real case-to-case decisions. The day I took him into Gamestop so I could inquire about a new video game proved that point.
As I stood in line, holding my agitated son, he struggled to break free. Lucas had gotten bigger through the years and, hovering around four, was getting harder and harder to keep calm in my arms. That’s when my brain vetoed the decision my gut had made and said, “Let him go. He’s a big boy. It’s a minute. He’ll be fine.” So, just as I reached the front of the line, I placed him on the carpet.
Do you know those cartoons where the small character will be running full speed until another character lifts them up? You see their little feet still sprinting at a record pace in mid-air and then, when they are put down, they instantly dart forward? That is exactly what happened here. It was like a scene in Scooby Doo. The second I placed him on the floor like a wind-up toy that had been turned to full blast, he took off…
…right into the wall.
The shelf fell. Games crashed down on top of him. He let out an annoyed whiny cry and I turned to the guy behind the counter, who’s mouth now hung open in surprise. I simply returned a deadpan look of frustration, walked over to my now-crying son, and scooped him up from the floor. With Lucas again in my arms, we left without saying a word.
The bottom line is that as a parent, it’s my job to assess the situations my children are in. Whether on or off the spectrum, you don’t cradle your child in a safe environment and you don’t send them off running blindly into a dangerous one. That’s something that Lucas taught me and a lesson that can be applied to anything in their lives. When I’m needed, I’m needed. When I’m not, I’m not. Differentiating between the two is my responsibility and, when it comes to this, I have to trust my instincts first.
I don’t place him into harm’s way in order to “prove” that he can do it or achieve some personal victory. To jeopardize his safety because I worry that someone might think poorly of him, see me as hovering dad, or to simply give myself “a break” from parenting is wrong. None of those things are important. In those situations, my son’s safety is the only thing that’s important. It takes the removal of ego and the acceptance that parties can often become more work than fun to accept that.
It may sound like a sacrifice, but to any real parent, it’s not even a thought. I love my children and want to guide them whenever I’m genuinely needed and my presence isn’t stopping them from growing on their own. It’s the reason I had them, how I show my love, and, no matter what others may think, it’s why I’ll hover for as long as my son needs me to.
Usually when you hear someone say, “In my day, we didn’t have internet, we had…” it’s followed by a boring activity. There are marbles or stick bats or some other primitive game accessories that makes today’s generation wince in disgust.
Not this time, though. Because, in my day, we didn’t have internet. We had prank phone calls and they were awesome.
We would all gather around the corded landline in the basement and begin punching in random seven digit numbers until someone answered. Usually, we never planned what to say ahead of time so we always ended up doing a deep voice and saying something like, “Uh. Hi. Haha. Is Billy Butts there?”
When the confused answerer would respond with a “no”, we’d laugh, yell, and hang up. This was some riveting stuff, kids. It went on for hours and, since caller ID was still years away from being rolled out, very few people could track you down.
We weren’t making obscene or threatening calls, just childish nonsense that, even to a child, was obviously childish nonsense. Yet, the grown ups who picked up would get so worked up that you’d think that we had firebombed an orphanage. It took next to nothing to send these adults, through the phone lines, into a ranting and raving fit. They’d demand to speak to your parents, threaten to call the police, and, in one strange instance, even begin chanting bible verses. As a child, I remember thinking that most people over the age of 30 were living on the edge of sanity with just a slight nudge being all it would take to send them into a dangerous tailspin. It was a pretty terrifying world view.
As the decades of my life flew away, so did the days of prank calls. Today, phone calls aren’t anonymous. In fact, nothing is. The only way you can really get away with making a prank phone call would be by finding a pay phone and, much like the decades, they too flew away. Walls that once had rows of telephone receivers now have, well, nothing. It’s just those blank metal plates reminding you that Ma Bell has moved on.
That’s why I couldn’t believe my eyes when I saw a genuine working pay phone inside of a Disney World hotel back in 2016. It was like finding a dinosaur bone at Chuck E. Cheese. As my wife wheeled Lucas around the boardwalk, I directed Olivia straight to this mystery contraption from the 1980s and explained the insanity and majesty of calling random 800 numbers. There wasn’t much to tell, but she was hanging on my every word and practically taking notes.
You hold the phone up to your ear and wait for them to say hello. Then you just act all crazy. I’ll think of a phone number you can call.
The only number that popped into my head was for Empire Carpets. They made it into their commercial jingle so that people eager for new carpeting could call right away. Unfortunately for them, it also made it so people searching for prank phone victims could call right away too. We called right away.
I pressed the buttons on the phone and watched as Olivia clung to the receiver with an ever-evolving face of glee. With each passing ring, her smile grew slightly bigger. Finally, her face beamed with excitement. Someone had picked up the other end and she shouted…
Laughter. Long pause.
Is Joe there?!
More laughter. Another pause. Wild face of maniacal bliss.
Where is Joe?! I want to order cable! Come install my cable!
I was watching my child have one of the top five greatest moments of her life. Suddenly her eyes started darting left and right and she began answering questions.
What? Haha. Yes…No…Huh?
I reached over her head and clicked the metal flap to hang up, out of fear that she was being cursed out. Although, to be honest, that’s a right of passage for any seasoned pranker.
What did he say to you?
Haha. He was laughing and was like, “Are your parents there?” I said, “Yes….”. He said, “Can I talk to them?” I said, “No…” Hahaha!
Joke’s on him. Your dad dialed the phone!
We were both laughing like crazy. However, this whole activity was obviously inappropriate so I did what any other responsible dad would do.
I dialed the number again and handed her the receiver.
She was in hysterics as it rang and, as luck would have it, that was the moment the other half of our family returned from their stroll. Seeing our daughter on an antiquated telephone, my wife asked what was happening. Unfortunately, the carpet guy answered before I could because, as I started to explain, Olivia raised her hand in the air and began to shout.
First of all, do not hang up on me! Second of all, I can count to one hundred! One…two…three…four…hang on, I’m still counting…five…hello? D’ja hangup on me?
Then she doubled over in laughter. It was a great moment in prank phone call history.
When we got home, she told everyone who would listen about her phoned-in rampage through a carpet company. It was, easily, the highlight of her 2016 Disney World trip.
You read that right. It was the highlight of her Disney World trip. Not Mickey. Not Donald. Not Darth Vader. Nope. It was the free prank phone calls.
Look, I know it’s childish and I know that parents aren’t supposed to encourage those things. I also know that some of my favorite childhood memories involve calling the bowling alley to inquire about the weight of their balls or calling your friend five times and asking for Tom, before making a final phone call of, “Hi. This is Tom. Any calls for me?” I laugh in my head just thinking about them. I wanted my daughter to have a memory like that too.
When we returned to Disney last year, the pay phone was gone. It was replaced by one of those blank metal plates and, unfortunately, we didn’t get to reconnect with our carpet buddy. Just like her dad, Olivia’s prank phone career will have to live on in memories.
When she looks back, adults won’t be limited to the seething rage of those who answered the phone. She’ll remember that her dad, a card-carrying adult himself, was by her side laughing the whole time.
My son is built like a Christmas ham with arms and legs. He’s a solid little bruiserweight that, if he wasn’t non-verbal with autism, would be recruited for the defensive line of a pee wee football team. He’s tough, thick, and gobbles up whatever is in his way.
He got that way from eating whatever he can find. While we might present him with plates of healthy options, Lucas doesn’t limit his food intake to that. He’s constantly on the prowl for whatever tasty morsels have been disregarded by others, whether for a moment or forever. If he finds it, it appears delicious, and no one is looking, he’ll eat it. Actually I take that back. He doesn’t care if you’re looking. If he’s hungry enough, he’ll eat it anyway. Right in your face. Chew, chew, swallow. Deal with it.
When you couple his insatiable appetite with his surprising cat-like agility, it makes for some embarrassing moments. My daughter’s basketball trophy ceremony comes to mind.
Our whole family, along with many others, was wedged into the multipurpose room of our local church. The event was somewhat chaotic. Kids were running up on stage and you were never sure when exactly it would be your child’s turn. As most parents know, though, when that time comes, you need to be able to simultaneously clap, yell their name, and take a picture. It’s a lot of pressure.
When that moment suddenly sprung upon us, I looked up with a hefty “hooray” and began cheering for my daughter’s success. I also took a quick glance around to make sure Lucas hadn’t dashed out the front door. Luckily he didn’t. Instead, my then-five year old son was standing one table over and sucking down a Venti Iced Coffee from Starbucks through a straw. He was doing it at such a breakneck speed that I expected him to get sucked into the cup itself like a cartoon character. He always makes such an intense face when he feverishly drinks from a straw. It made me smile, but only for a second.
Then I realized he was drinking coffee and I panicked a bit.
Then I realized that no one in our family went to Starbucks that day. Then I panicked a lot.
Then I realized that he was behind another family, who had all stood up to applaud their child. The mother had left iced coffee unattended.
Then I freaked out.
She turned around with a confused smile and we began to profusely apologize. I didn’t really have much explanation to offer. When Lucas shouts out or does something impulsive, I can always shrug and say, “That’s what he does.” But stealing coffee from strangers and then using their germy straw to down it all before they could turn around from a four second applause break was a hard one to talk our way around.
Of course, the woman was nice about it. People usually are. For some reason, I always assume they won’t be. I guess that’s more about my cynicism than his Autism though. Most of my imagined scenarios involve rude or angry strangers throwing rocks at us. In reality, they’re usually pretty understanding and it’s me who is the awkward one in that moment.
I’ve never been sure if he loves iced coffee or if he just loves the Starbucks cups themselves. He’s seven and already has more than enough energy, so we tend to keep caffeine away. Yet these giant clear cups with their green straws and paper receipts stuck to the side with condensation draw him in. He chugs them before you even know he’s gone and it almost feels like he should smash the empty cup into his forehead and let out a frat boy growl to cap the whole experience off.
The one thing I am sure of is that he knows he’s not supposed to be doing this. He understands “no”, but he also understands that you have to ride the bull if you want the ribbon. When Lucas has a strong desire for something, he lets nothing stand in his way.
I know that through many real-life examples, but the most prominent one was when I joined his classroom to make faces on pancakes. That’s a real sentence. That happened. We made pancake faces. The activity was to decorate flapjacks with toppings like candy corns and chocolate chips to resemble a person. It was actually more fun than it sounds.
From the start, Lucas was having none of it. There was a pancake in front of him and no one would let him eat it. He was mad. He knew we had to decorate it but was very open about his unhappiness. He’d angrily throw a candy corn on top and then give me a surly expression as if to say, “There. Done. Happy? Let’s eat.”
Eventually, we finished the ceremonial face making and he was allowed to devour it like a starving bear. Not all the children ate theirs. In fact, I don’t think any of them ate theirs. We were the only duo who immediately cannibalized our candy face man. As soon as my son was finished with his, though, he started eyeing the other pancake faces around us. I knew how his mind was working and when he reached out to another desk as if to ask for their smiling plate, I told him no.
No, buddy. That’s their pancake. We had ours. No, no, no.
Now at this point, Lucas is covered in whipped cream and sprinkles and all the other things that went into our frowning flapjack face. He’s stuffed full of pancake, angry at me for not letting him loot the room for carbs, and not in the best of moods. The timing couldn’t have been worse as that’s when we all were told to come get their knapsacks for dismissal.
When we did, he made his move. This hefty little guy, out of nowhere, launched himself into the air sideways. He was like a shortstop gliding through space to catch a line drive. As his body sailed towards the desk next to us, he reached out his arm, and, in one motion, scooped the pancake off the plate and shoved it into his mouth. We all watched in astonishment as he landed flat on the floor with a big smile on his face – the same face stuffed with someone else’s project. His teacher said the only thing any of us could say in that moment.
Oh. Uh, OK. That’s OK.
And it was. What else could it be? It was over. He got his pancake. Done. People pick and choose their battles and he chose this one. You’ve got to respect that.
As he’s grown, he’s learned to control a lot of those impulses, but they still lurk just beneath the surface. I love him for it and I’m proud of how he’s become able to conduct himself in more controlled way. I’m very proud.
I also never leave a bagel with peanut butter or iced coffee unattended in the house either, though. I may be proud, but I’m not stupid.
I knew I made the right decision by agreeing to the foggy bubble people.
Weird opening sentence, I know, but it’s totally true. A few weeks ago, I received an unexpected email from someone with “Fobbles”. In the message, I was asked a question that I never expected and one that almost doesn’t need an answer.
Would you be interested in reviewing our fog-filled bubble machine to see if it’s something your family likes?
Yeah. That was an actual question. For a moment, let’s forget that bubbles is the run-away most popular thing in our family. This is fog-filled bubbles that we’re talking about here – as in something magical that I never knew was even a thing before this email. It was like asking if I wanted a free baby koala that pukes money “to see if the family likes it”. The only possible way we wouldn’t enjoy their fog-filled bubble maker would be if it tried to murder us while shooting the bubbles. Even then, we’d probably forgive its attempted homicide because, well, it makes fog-filled bubbles and that sounds pretty awesome.
All four members of our family have very different interests stretching across a wide spectrum. It’s not just because my son is non-verbal, although that does add a twist to it, but mostly because we’re all usually into our own individual worlds. Most days, my wife will be practicing the latest cookie decorating techniques while my daughter constructs a Roblox mansion. I’ll be in the other room watching Japanese Wrestling with Lucas running back and forth between all of us blaring his latest Sesame Street app. I try to show interest in all the activities they enjoy. They do the same for me. Sometimes it’s more painful than others, but we grit our teeth, plaster on a smile, and try to share in the things that make each other happy. It’s a group effort and one that every family does on some level for one another.
We all, however, are on board with bubbles.
It’s just something we discovered long ago that we all love equally. I’m not sure whether it’s the unpredictable nature of them or how low-tech it is in a world where nothing else is, but chasing bubbles is one of the few happenings that none of us has to feign interest in for the sake of another family member. It’s a shared love that we all gravitate to and, when you consider that our tastes range from dropkicks to Elmo, that’s pretty amazing.
When we hit a lull in our weekend, I pulled out the Fobble machine and prepared to unleash it’s bubbly mayhem on the family. As I plugged it in and waited as it warmed up, I was worried that it might not live up to expectations. So many of my over-excited Dad plans sparkle and fade without warning. I was already constructing an excuse and alternate plans in my head…when it suddenly let out a huge burst of fog. Olivia screamed and I proceeded to take a million pictures of my family laughing and running through the thick mist of smoky bubbles. My living room was straight out of the Twilight Zone.
As predicted, my family loved this machine. What’s not to like? It shot fog-filled bubbles in their faces and, when they popped, it looked like a scene from Harry Potter. We knew we loved it before we even knew it existed.
Watching them scream through a haze of flying soap balls takes me back to Medieval Times – the dinner and tournament, not the actual time period. That’s because, much like bubbles before it, it’s another family-shared pastime we were lucky to discover.
My wife, daughter, and I had always on the Medieval bandwagon. We proudly wore our crowns and cheered on whatever knight we randomly were assigned with tenacious loyalty. It always produced a happy afternoon of grub, grog, and entertainment that never failed to send us home happy.
It wasn’t until this year that my son did too. Never one for live shows, getting him to pay attention to any performance required constant pleas of “Look, Lucas. Look at that. You see? Look. Are you looking? See? Where are you going?” Nine times out of ten, he wouldn’t bother. I’d sit there with my finger extended in a point and he’d give me a silent expression that screamed, “Yeah, huh? Nice finger, dork.”
While he patiently sat through most entertainment excursions we thrust upon him, because he’s cool like that, I still always felt bad. These events started to seem less about family and more about dragging him to shows we liked. Deep down, it was as if we were asking him to do us a favor every time. From Disney World Parades to forgettable student musicals at the Children’s museum, he was always disinterested and only seemed to be there to make us happy. I loved him for it, but still always searched for that one magic event that he would like too.
During our visit to the knight-themed dinner theater this year, though, I didn’t need to reach over a chicken carcass and apple juice to direct his attention to the Medieval show. Surprisingly, the Medieval show already had it. I watched in surprise as my son, who has never shown any interest in any performance of anything ever, strained his neck to see the knights coming out for battle. He stared at the falcon flying and sat up straight for the king’s declaration. He saw it all and, for the first time, he wasn’t doing it for us. He was doing it for himself. On that day, Medieval Times took on a whole different meaning for our family. It joined the bubble category as something that’s loved by us – all of us.
Maybe your family kayaks every Summer or puts on floppy hats to go garage sale hopping. No matter what they might be, discovering the things you enjoy as a unit is important in life. Appreciating the activities your loved ones enjoy may be an important part of family. Realizing the things that you all love together, though, is perhaps the most important thing of all.
Special thanks to Fobbles for providing me with their fog-filled bubble machine. Be sure to check out theirIndiegogo Campaign.
Lucas was barely three when we took that last cruise. That’s the cruise where we decided that we hated cruises.
They just seemed to be a lot more fun when my wife and I were younger and free from kiddie clothes in our luggage. Plus, while my daughter could enjoy all the daily activities on-board, my son, who is non-verbal with Autism, couldn’t. As was common at the time, I felt pretty guilty about that.
It was still the stage where I felt pretty guilty about everything when it came to him. Every event he couldn’t be a part of was another moment that I held myself responsible for. I just wanted him to have fun and, still early on in his life, I was unsure how to make that happen. I felt like I was failing him daily.
So when we finally found the kiddie area of the boat’s pool, we were thrilled. Lucas loved it and, because of that, we loved it. We all sat in a corner and, while his sister ran through the cascading streams, Lucas happily splashed his hand on the ground. It was a welcome moment of fun for him and a relief for all of us. I was happy that he was happy.
Also in the vicinity was another boy, who was maybe around ten. He was playing a bit rough with some friends, but not doing anything that really warranted my attention…until he came over.
Lucas, who hadn’t moved from his seated spot in the corner, was still splashing away when this kid came by. He stopped short near us and then came shuffling over to me with his grubby little hand pointed at my son.
Um. He just splashed me.
Without hesitation, I looked this kid straight in the eyes and said:
Yeah? He probably doesn’t like you.
Then I stared at him with a blank stare until, confused, he waddled away.
Now keep in mind, I was watching the whole time and know my kid didn’t splash this boy. Also – and this was the kicker – we were in a giant maze of active sprinklers. There was water splashing on all of us the entire time. Even if Lucas heaved a gallon of chlorine on this kid, much less whatever he could drum up with his tiny hand from a seated position, it wouldn’t have mattered given how much was raining down on us all. Still, that doesn’t really excuse my reaction.
Although, to be brutally honest, my first thought was to imagine tossing this kid from the boat Titanic-style. In that small window of time, I envisioned his silhouette against the sun and heard Celine Dion in the distance as he floated away on a piece of driftwood.
I mean, let’s be frank here. It was the first real moment of fun that Lucas was having on this entire trip. He had done everything that we asked. Now, in the one moment for him, he has to have some kid trying to “get him in trouble” for no reason? I know kids do that to each other, but not this time. No way, pal. Not Lucas.
Don’t get me wrong. I’m protective of my daughter too But I realize that she has different interactions in the outside world. I stand up for her when she’s treated unfairly but allow her to stand up for herself as much as possible. I know what she’s capable of and I give her the space to demonstrate it.
While I know that Olivia can defend herself. I also know that Lucas can’t and, to be honest, he has never had a reason to. When he and I are together, I make sure that he respects people around him without hiding who he is. If we’re at a quiet event and he begins to shout out and disturb the performance, we will walk outside until he calms down. If we’re in a place where other children are yelling too, then we won’t. It’s a case to case basis and it’s simply about common courtesy for those around us. That’s a rule I follow for both of my children.
Because of that, Lucas gives no reason for anyone to have any negative issue with him at all. Zero. He doesn’t bother them, they don’t bother him, and everyone is happy. Any negative issue that someone might have can’t be traced back to something bad that my boy did. I make sure of that. I know it might come across as protective and, if it does, then I’m fine with it.
Perhaps my biggest motivation to defend Lucas is Lucas himself. While my little guy may not have a lot of the positive social behaviors of other seven-year-olds, he also doesn’t have a lot of the negative ones. Lucas is never rude or vindictive. He rarely, if ever, has done anything out of spite. The extent of his sneakiness is grabbing a cookie from the table when I look away. When he smiles, it’s genuine. When he loves, it’s real. He’s a unique person in a world where we all profess to have such admiration for unique people. I honestly wish we all could see the world as he does.
So, with all that being true, anyone who would do or say something unkind to a person like him is a truly terrible human being and one that I will gladly stand up to. In times like that, I’m actually less upset about anything they may have said or done and more depressed about the fact that my kids have to live in a world with such horrible people. That’s definitely a huge part of what fuels the, as others might see it, “protective” instincts.
Keep in mind, I’m not speaking for all children – on or off the spectrum. I’m just speaking for mine. He’s the reason I once stared down an eight-year-old for trying to nudge the iPad from his hand. He’s the reason I almost Celine Dion’d that kid off the side of a Norwegian Cruise Line. Simply put, he’s mine and I’ll watch over him forever.
At the end of the day, I’m protective of those I love – whether they need it or not. In my son’s case, he needs it. So here I am. Who knows? Maybe one day, he’ll be able to stand up, speak loud, and defend himself.
And when that day comes, I’ll still stand up and protect him.