Speaking up, speaking down

Water wasn’t spouting from the dolphin’s mouth, so I led Philip to a crocodile that shoots water through its snout instead. Finding him satisfied with this alternative, I sat in an Adirondack chair to watch.

An innocuous pop song piping through the outdoor speakers was muffled by the hum of pumps, the splash of water on concrete, and the squeals of children. The overcast sky lingering from earlier rainstorms explained the sparse population at the spray park. There were, however, four children drawing with chalk in the zone where Philip now played.

The youngest was the first to approach. She began to fill a container with water pouring out of the crocodile’s left nostril. Philip chose that moment to cover the right nostril, causing the water to shoot over the girl’s head. She studied Philip before walking over to her grandmother.

“Grandma, why is he doing this?” She gyrated her hips, trying to mimic Philip’s side to side rocking.

“I don’t know ,” the woman responded.

The girl rinsed away chalk with her dish of water and then returned for a refill. She eyed Philip, but tolerated his rocking. She seemed to realize he was unintentionally splashing her face with his play.

Her brother was less understanding.

“Hey! Don’t do that!” the boy yelled when Philip diverted the water away from his container.  “Don’t do that!” he whined, but Philip played on. After another ineffectual “Heee-yyyy!” he moved Philip’s hand. Philip put his hand back moments later, so the boy took Philip by the wrist once more.

I watched, my stomach roiled, and my brain reeled.

He’s touching Philip. Will he hurt him?

You’re the mom who hasn’t taught her only child to share.

Wait; why should he share? Philip found the one spot where he wants to play. That whiny kid can go anywhere. Why doesn’t he?

You can’t always be there. Philip will have to learn to handle this.

But should I speak up for him? Too late, it’s over.

Yet it wasn’t over. The other two girls came to fill buckets. The oldest gave Philip an annoyed look and sought a different water source. The other girl stood her ground.

“Stop doing that!” she shouted at Philip. Water from the left nostril shot into her face when Philip blocked the right side. “Stop it!” she demanded, but Philip was engrossed in the cause and effect of his play.

The girl had a lid with her. She began flapping this in the stream, sending water in Philip’s face. I read the calculation on her face, saw that she too was contemplating cause and effect. I couldn’t sit still any longer.

I forced myself to slowly stand, casually stroll over and calmly speak to the girl.

“Can I tell you something?” I asked.

She stared at me.

“He probably doesn’t understand you. When you ask him to stop, he might not know that you’re talking to him. He doesn’t talk. He’s focused on having fun.”

With perfect timing, Philip interrupted me with a shower of water in my face.

“See,” I chuckled, “he even got me wet. He’s not trying to be mean, he probably just doesn’t understand.”

She looked at Philip and then back at me.

“He’s not trying to be mean,” I said once more before I returned to my chair.

I played it back through my mind.

Was it right to intervene?

I should have knelt down instead of towering over her.

Did I make her understand?

Did I just insult Philip?

Did I just speak up for or speak down about my autistic son?

Linking up with Yeah Write.

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44 thoughts on “Speaking up, speaking down

  1. You handled yourself beautifully. I have a hard time being understanding, when other kids don’t understand my Jonah. I usually do not handle myself with grace and generally miss a perfect teaching moment. After all, it’s up to us to help educate the community about Autism. I really enjoy your blog.

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  2. Oh, I do that with my typical kids. It’s natural instinct, maybe, to explain away our children’s intentions. Should we as parents go sit down somewhere and let it play out? Yes.

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      1. AAAAAH. I sometimes say “she’s having a hard time.” Yesterday I had a good talk with myself about not getting embarrassed. I mean, just to stop it already. Mine is so on the border between typical and special needs that I fear this could be the heartbreaking year where kids really start to notice and shun. AAAAH.

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  3. I don’t have children so I have no clue how I would react. But, I think you showed remarkable restraint and handled everything just fine. That you still are thinking it through shows what a great mom you are.

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    1. +1 on this, and it shows respect for the child you’re talking to as well as to your own. It’s easy for us (at least, it often is for me) to slip into labels: “He’s autistic”, “She has Asperger’s”, etc, but a child doesn’t always understand those labels or what they mean in any practical sense.

      My boy is verbal, but he uses a lot of scripted speech (usually movie quotes). There was an incident just a few weeks ago when some of the other boys on his baseball team didn’t understand that he was quoting from Monsters Inc., and thought that he *meant* it when he said he likes scaring kids in bed. I’ve been wishing I’d handled it better, but your story gives me some ideas about how to handle the next (inevitable) incident.

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      1. It just goes to show how autism is a spectrum. I have no experience with scripting, but I read about it a lot on other parent blogs.

        It’s a balance to be respectful of our children while, at the same time, finding a way to explain complex neurology in terms that other children can understand.

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  4. I think that was a perfect touch. And Phillip helped prove your point perfectly. Trust your gut when it comes to these things because there really is no way of knowing what’s optimum. Great post!

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  5. That is a good question, speaking up or speaking down. I agree, I think what you said/explained to the little girl was perfect. Because awareness really is the key to understanding autism, and while you won’t always be there with him to spread it, you are helping spread awareness through this blog to people who may not know much about it.

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  6. I think you handled the situation wonderfully. I have two daughters that are 11 and 7. My cousin has twin boys whom are 7 years old. My daughters don’t have to exactly understand why the boys sometimes play in their own world. I have instilled in them that the boys Lance and Issac sometimes won’t talk and it’s not that they are being rude or mean, they are just enjoying themselves. While reading this post, I guess, because of my cousin’s situation, or just as a parent, it bothered me some that the grandmother of one of the other children said she didn’t know. I feel she should have explained first that nothing was wrong with your son. I also think one of the other children’s parent/grandparent should have intervened without you having to take that step. However, I think you explained the facts to the girl, and it doesn’t sound like you were cruel or harsh. We as parents sometimes don’t get it right, but I have intervened with my daughters at times when I probably shouldn’t have. I believe you done the right thing without insulting your son or being harsh to the other child. This is a wonderful post!!

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    1. I didn’t mind the grandmother’s response which, in full, was: “I don’t know why he’s doing that.” I’d rather she say she didn’t know rather than make up a reason. Of the four children, that young girl showed the most tolerance and acceptance.

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  7. I think you walk the line between speaking up for your son and speaking down about him beautifully, and are always on the right side of it. I loved this piece, and I love you sticking up for him with that girl.

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    1. I don’t blame the girl for getting frustrated that Philip kept splashing her. In fact, I knew Philip would get upset if she began to retaliate. I really felt like she needed to know it wasn’t intentional.

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  8. That’s got to be so hard! I know I struggle with that with my kids as well, but autism adds a whole other dimension. You did a GREAT job. To engage and give this girl a chance to learn something–amazing. And you know what? I bet she did. I bet that moment sticks with her more than you could realize. Loved this, and ached through it.

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  9. I’m not a parent, but I do think you kept your mama bear instinct in check to see how things played out and did not do or say any more than you had to. Who knows if that girl would have gotten more forceful or just walked away, but this way you gave her some education that she will hopefully take with her.

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    1. I was really worried that she was going to escalate the situation which is why I justify (to myself) intervening. I hope she was able to go on having fun rather than getting in an incident.

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  10. I think you handled it beautifully and wrote about it beautifully.

    I have a nephew on the spectrum and we have always explained to our kids that, even though he is older and bigger, he sees the world in a different way than anyone else does, which means that some of the things we do don’t make sense to him and some of the things he does don’t make sense to us and that it’s OK. This was very useful when my son went to Kindergarten and had a mainstreamed child with autism in his class. At one point, the child with autism was he was balancing on the edge of a meltdown and he hit my son, who just happened to be sitting next to him during circle time. Before the classroom teacher could explain it to my son, he said, “It’s OK — Jordan didn’t really mean to hit me, he just thinks in a different way. I know he’s not mad at me.”

    And, for the record, had I been at the park and the kids waiting in line were mine, I would have redirected them. Especially if there was another water source — no need to interrupt any child who is playing and all kids can learn more patience.

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  11. Boy. What a tough thing to witness. It’s hard for us to know when to intervene and I can only imagine how much harder it is when your child doesn’t talk. I think you handled it well and expressed just enough so that the girl could try to understand.

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