Autism: The Brighter Side of the Rough Spots

It was on the winding drive up to Sugarloaf that I noticed the familiar hill rising up on our left.  Driving beside it I still remember those late summer afternoons on the ridge and it indeed seems bigger than just a hill.  Maybe it’s a mountain and not a hill…I’m not sure the difference.  It’s more than a hill you can walk right up without stopping.  If memory served me at all, I recall that when I last walked that rising piece of earth in search of my spectrum kiddo’s lost Lego piece, it took me three separate rest breaks to make it to the top during the search and rescue mission.  I will tell you it felt like every bit of a mountain on that day we scoured the brown dirt for Fire Toa Jaller’s silver sword.

Looking back over a five year’s distance, I can see a lot of things happened on that mountainous hill and since.  From losing Jaller’s silver sword to the foal whose life was spared and even now, with the sleds in the back of my van as we drive, I realize, the road has been long and good.  It’s funny how the universe and God are such expert crafters and have this way of weaving layers of substance into our lives.

The mountainous hill I have come to love stands at the edge of Granite Station.  Once upon a time, way back in the late 1800’s and early 1900’s, Granite Station was a stage coach stop in Central Cali.  Today the mountainous hill is at the back side of the remaining chimney that marks where the stage used to make its stop.  The day we saw her again we happened to be on our way with other friends for a day of sledding higher up into the iced peaks of the Sequoias.

Five years ago, when we were new to Cali after our move from Florida, I remember how it felt taking drives to Granite Station with my kiddos when we used to check on our friend’s horse.  The horse he rescued happened to be pregnant and, with him often out of town, he needed help checking on her.  I enjoyed the drive and the peace so I volunteered to periodically take the drive up to Granite Station.  I enjoyed the freedom of climbing to the top of the mountainous hill, of walking around to find the horses on the property and, for as many miles as I could see, looking out upon that seldom found and often craved bare-ground-touching-blue-sky serenity that lives at Granite Station.  Divorce will make you crave that serenity and I was craving it as much as the air I needed to breathe.

It was on one of those roaming walks across the mountainous hill that I became aware, mostly by the sound of my spectrum kiddo’s voice rising with sudden and fierce agitation, that a beloved and critical Lego piece was missing.  If you are not yet a Lego builder, finder, lover, you may not know that one eensy-teensy piece can throw an entire character into ruin, can make a truck into a crumbling heap, a boat into a sinking scrap pile.  Losing a piece is not easy to swallow.  Well, it happens to be quite easy to swallow, as a matter of fact, and we’ve lost a few that way as well but I won’t go into that now.  It’s neither pretty nor clean.

Losing Fire Toa Jaller’s silver sword that day was d-e-v-a-s-t-a-t-i-n-g.  On the mountainous hill we scoured the earth around us, backtracking our steps with four sets of eyes fixed into the dirt but despite Herculean efforts and desire, we never found the critical silver sword that would make our Lego Bionicle Jaller whole again.  I remember the insistence, the pleading and the panic in his voice.  It was a sound that would become the hallmark of the autism stage we were in at the time.

During those early days in Cali I would drop everything to fix the panic, to ease the anxiety and calm the chaos he was trying to eliminate from his life.  It even took me a few complete meltdowns that year in our new school before I came to see that turning myself into a fixing wizard was not the answer.  I was continually scrambling to make it better but, in the big picture, this was not helping him and, if anything, it was causing him to derail further.  The behaviors he was getting mired down inside of, in his bid to seek perfection in all things and with my wizardly power aiding his mania, were now interfering with his academic future.  It was getting serious f-a-s-t and it was becoming apparent, I was doing him a disservice by helping  him to believe that Mom could make everything in his life perfectly pristine.

Shortly after the last meltdown at school I had an enlightening moment of my own as it became clear for the first time that, in my bid to make it better and ease his panic, I was taking away his ability to learn coping skills and mature.  I decided then and there that I would no longer be his enabler.  I would no longer let him believe it was okay to fill himself with such panic during his blinding bid to seek and retain perfection in his life.  That was one of the first moments I can remember when I knew I would be in for a fight.  I would have to push back and consciously begin to work toward desensitizing him.  I would have to be strong enough to say…our life will go on despite this loss or imperfection…and stand beside him through the ugly moments until he could come to believe it too and learn to cope with imperfection and even the concept of loss.  I will say I stood up and found my backbone more quickly than he found the skills to understand it could be okay.  It took him a while to realize that even if mom could not fix everything and present him with perfection, life would still be okie dokie.  It took time, it took ugly moments, it took some push back for him to finally see and be able to internalize that it would indeed be okay if everything was not in his or my control.  We also practiced saying new words every day.  Simple things like, “It’s okay,” and “It’s no big deal.”

That year was the year the kids and I moved by ourselves to California as the divorce our family experienced became exceedingly real.  That was the year we left our home behind and found a new one.  That was the year we said good bye to our neighbors and friends and came to a new state where we would be forced to find new ones (even though we still loved the old ones).  That was the year we said good bye to the school and the teachers and the librarian and the families that we loved and who loved us and we set out to discover a new academic life.  That was the year we all had to start over and we went through some awkward moments as we grew and stretched and morphed into more resilient individuals than we were when we left Florida.  That was the year we all learned that there was grace in imperfection.

Not once did we stop loving or supporting each other through the rough spots because, as we found out, the rough spots are when you grow and learn and become seasoned in life.  Sometimes you even have to lose things, shake things up, to grow into a healthier version of you.  That was the year a Lego on the mountainous hill taught each of us that even when we lose control of life, even when the pieces don’t all fit together perfectly and we are in transition, it will still be okay… if we stick together.  Sometimes, it might even be better once you get to the brighter side of the rough spot.

The rest of the story unfolded on the mountainous hill at Granite Station when my friend’s horse finally had her foal.  Driving up to Sugarloaf  was the first time I had glimpsed the mountainous hill at Granite Station in many years and I was reminded of just how deep the ripples of Jaller’s sword were felt and how far that simple lost Lego piece reached through the community.  As it turned out, the foal born on the mountainous hill was surprisingly not perfect.  It was born with a funky foot that normally, for men like my no nonsense ranching friend, would have meant a swift and practical death for the baby horse.  For all practical purposes, a horse that cannot walk unassisted is of no use to a rancher.

The first time he called to say the foal would have to be put down I pushed back kindly as friends can do to one another.  Our friend, an old fashioned rancher whose bottom line is practical usefulness, had never know about disabilities before my spectrum kiddo walked into his life.  Luckily, he was wowed by the quirky briliance that lived in such juxtaposition to all he’d been taught his whole life.  For him, disability had always mean inability and my son turned that upside down.  Different suddenly became ‘W-O-W, that’s autism?’  Had the foal been born six months prior to meeting my spectrum kiddo, I am fairly certain the foal would have been put down.  After losing Jaller’s sword on his mountain and participating in the search, the hardened rancher came to understand that different isn’t less and differences can open a world up to miracles.  He also watched my boy stand in the middle of six of his ranch horses in a field as the horses all gave my son their complete attention.  Autism introduced many experiences to the rancher that the rancher simply could not explain.

The next time we spoke, when I didn’t ask about the baby horse, he asked me if I wanted to know how it was.  When I nervously hesitated, he went on to tell me that his vet friend said they can put a prosthesis, a brace of sorts, on the foot and it can work.  He insisted the foal wasn’t going to win any races or shows but it would be just fine and, in my heart, I could see he knew…different might not have been perfect but it was also eye opening and miraculous and there was value in that….even for a practical rancher.

That day when we drove past the mountainous hill and made our way up to Sugarloaf in the Sequoias for our sledding trip, I realized the search for Jaller’s sword had done more than just churn up dust on the mountainous hill.  My spectrum kiddo, who hated snow years before and asked every fifteen minutes if it was time to go because he was bored… had ceased his need for perfection and control.  He’d actually gone on to love sledding.  In fact, the boy who loved nothing more than electronics  made snow balls, he hiked up the four hundred foot run with his sled in hand and he sledded and crashed and even skidded over the mild jump.  He tolerated the cold and he tolerated the fact that he would not be handed electronics to soothe him.  And thanks to one spectrum boy and his Lego, the search for Jaller’s lost sword evolved and rippled far enough to touch a hardened rancher who found his own grace in our search for peace in imperfection because, as we all discovered, imperfection is actually an opportunity to discover perfect grace.

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