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Playing With My Autistic Son

At 57, I am finally the mother I wanted to be.

As a young woman, I wanted to have children, with a kind of oceanic hunger. But as a young mother, I wasn't prepared for the reality of mothering, the crowded panicky moments of mealtime, and then the long stretches of time just being with them not knowing what I was supposed to be doing. I did not anticipate the actual sore knees of mothering—the cramping I'd get from sitting on a hard floor playing with tiny rubber animals or Legos. I had to get used to thinking like a small child in terms of our storylines and characters; I had to learn what it felt like to sit within long sleepy moments indoors, feeling my heart turn over almost in tears at their sweet soft but solid bodies and dimpled hands. Watching their minds work, almost neuron-by-neuron.

With Max and Ben, my two younger sons, playing was constant and absorbing. They did not play the way I did as a young girl, caught up in my own little adventure-survivalist games but also Barbies and dress-up. Max and Ben were into building things—zoos, towers, space ships, cars, farms, islands—and I learned from them what to do.

Playing with my oldest and autistic son Nat was very different. In the beginning, he had little interest in what to do with the tiny colorful objects sprinkled across his bedroom rug, the figurines, the vehicles, the balls. Even before I knew Nat had autism I lived with a mild rumbling of puzzlement at his differences, mixed with giddy pride in his every new skill. I had a constant low-level thrum of anxiety because I did not know if I was mothering him right. And once I learned the nature of his disability, I still was stymied because the experts seemed to have no clue as to how to engage him with play.

It wasn’t until I fully grasped that I was the expert on Nat that my feelings began to change. I stopped listening to behavioral special educators who recommended what amounted to forced play, or Floortimers who encouraged me vaguely to "meet him in his world in order to pull him into mine." Pretty theories with dim results. My evolution to Nat's mom happened when I used what I was learning from playing with Max and Ben. When I finally realized that I was the one who had to learn—not how to play but how to suspend myself and just be.

Where Max and Ben showed me, demanded of me, to be their playmate and follow their rules, Nat's form of play was subtler and hidden. But it was there just the same. Mothering became more and more about diving into the moment with them, much like Jane and Michael Banks jumping into Bert's chalk drawings in Mary Poppins. Nat's play moments were not the familiar games or characters of Max and Ben. But the thing they all shared was that I had to be a certain way; I had to be without a self in an almost Existential, Sartre-like way. I had to be their clay and let them shape me, let them direct whatever was happening.

With Nat, it was harder to figure out what that was. What was happening in his mind? What was "fun" for him? I couldn’t join him in wiggling ribbon in the sunbeams or watching water run from the faucet, at least not for the length of time he wanted to do it. But at about 18 months I learned how he could sit and listen to books over and over. At around three he discovered he loved lying stretched out on the floor and being spun around, his whole body like the hands of a very fast clock. That was easy enough. But at some point I also realized that just sitting next to him, being with him, was very valuable for us both.

Now that he is thirty, and living at home again (temporarily, because of the Coronavirus), I see that my approach to spending time with Nat is largely the same as when he was small. No, he doesn't want to be spun or read to. But he does love when I'm sitting next to him on the couch, helping him pay attention to the online classes offered by his day program. Usually, I am prompting him to consider the question being asked, like "what is today's weather," or "anyone have any news they want to share," or "what color should we make this cut-out drawing of a beach umbrella?" All I have to do is say, "Nat, what color do you pick?" and I kind of bring the class interaction closer so he can notice it. I'm listening to questions and thinking like Nat—what he is capable of answering or what is too much of a stretch, too open-ended. I'm translating content into Nat-sentences and creating a path to the class inside the computer screen.

And, as I discovered all those years ago playing with each of my three boys, I succeed when I am at my most self-less (note I am not saying "selfless;" I am really describing an almost meditative way of being where I have turned off my own thoughts and needs and I become a pair of eyes reading Nat). Within each half-hour Zoom class block of time, I am diving into Nat's mind, thinking like Nat based on knowing him for thirty years and studying what it is like to be him. Finding what connects and what falls away in the darkness. Each Lockdown day I don’t know what I’m going to find with my student/teacher/playmate/son, what surprises, bursts of understanding he’ll have, but I’ll be right there when it happens. Just like so long ago, but I’m on the couch, not the floor. And I’m enjoying myself.

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