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Making Accommodations Between an Autistic Child and Parent

A parent learns to garden with her autistic son who hates gardening.

Key points

  • There is an assumption that autism parents and others carry that developmentally challenged people love gardening and farming.
  • An autism parent of an adult stresses that learning to change and accommodate each other in their relationship is necessary and ongoing.
  • Taking cues from each other and empathizing is the best way to grow a relationship, even parent with an adult child.

Recently I came back from a Cape Cod vacation to a sodden garden full of weeds. A clownish parade of gladiolas marched through the long grass; many were dead or broken in half because they don’t seem to know when to stop growing. And there I was, itching to get out there and hack, stake, and rip. Gardening — even with the mess, the pests, and the sweat involved — is my bliss. The sweet surprise of a returning foxglove, the impossibly deep blue of delphiniums; they are like faithful friends coming back year after year.

But my autistic son Nat was visiting, so I knew that I had to proceed carefully.

There is something elemental and universal about farming that cuts across all the neurological divergence and unites us all. There is an assumption that autism parents and others carry that developmentally challenged people love gardening and farming. Many autism parents long to see their adult loved ones live on farms (and many do), surrounded by the good earth, the sunshine, and the satisfaction of nurturing living things. I understand that yearning for the simplicity and safety of the countryside for my son, away from the confusion and apparent menace of city life.

But Nat hates gardening, despite so many attempts to engage him in it. Seeds and weeds — he couldn’t care less. Yet all Nat’s life, people have assumed that he must love gardening because he is active and physical, always on the move. Not so. He will do what is required and less. I give him a hose, and he points it at the driveway and watches the river rush by. I know he understands because his receptive language is far more vigorous than his expressive speech.

“No, Nat, do the flowers like this,” and I take the hose and show him.

He waters just enough to flatten the blossoms and then goes right back to the driveway. I retake the hose, and the minute my back is turned, he goes inside. You can lead Nat to flowers, but he won’t let them drink. He’s a city man.

Nat temporarily moved out of his group home during the pandemic to live with us due to health concerns. I found I had to sneak in my gardening when he was out on two-hour walks with my husband, Ned. The walks were a way to burn off Nat’s energy and get them outside away from the boredom of the lockdown. And I would get a two-hour break from the intensity.

Ned, having grown up in Manhattan, made a game of finding new areas deep within the ancient brick forests of Boston. Nat seemed to love it just as much; during the 18 months that he lived here, they walked an average of six miles a day. While they were out, I would dive into my garden. But often, it didn’t work out because of the weather or other demands on my time.

Things got kind of untenable for me because of my flower obsessions, and Nat would be so unhappy when I was out there, and sometimes he would have a tantrum or, on rare occasions, become self-injurious.

“Mommy will come in,” he would say in his charmingly eccentric way of speaking.

My years of autism training, informed by the most common strategy, behavior modification, told me to ignore this alleged manipulation and continue despite his response. Reward him for tolerating my time outside.

I couldn’t do it. It felt inhumane and invalidating. After all, Nat is 31, a grown man with feelings and preferences like all others, and I refuse to treat him with robotic responses. I won’t squelch his “bad behavior.” I would get to the bottom of it. I would try to figure out why Nat hated my gardening so much and reach a solution with him. My best guess was that he did not like how it took me away from him for long indeterminate amounts of time. That there was no clear end time to it. He saw how I go out for “just a little bit,” and it would become hours.

And Nat, unlike me, thrives on structure and predictability. Schedules and calendars organize his perception and make an otherwise chaotic world bearable. The Autism Society of America has some excellent resources about this:

In addition to changes in schedules, unstructured activities and wait time may also create anxiety and confusion for some individuals on the spectrum. Individuals may need specific directions and checklists of what to do during unstructured activities. During long wait times (e.g., waiting for the school bus to arrive), a box of wait time activities, such as books, toys, or sensory items, can be helpful.

We survived the pandemic with Nat as a family by creating solid routines like walking and baking and ironclad calendars. And I realized that if I needed to garden while Nat was around, I would have to resist my messy nature and stick to a firm set of tasks out there. And I would have to explain to him precisely what I was tackling on each given gardening day and then do only that.

I believe that Nat has begun to see that I keep my word. I can still feel his tension when I go outside with a big paper bag and my hori-hori knife. But now I take the time to tell him what I’m going to do and when it will end, and he can accept it.

So when I went outside the other day to prop up those crazy gladiolas, Nat watched carefully, but he did not get upset. And when Ned asked him, “What’s Mom doing?” In his simple wisdom and perhaps a new generosity of spirit, Nat replied, “Mom is flowering.”

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