When Autism Smacks You in the Face: Letting Go of the Expectations You Have for Your Autistic Child

by J

Autism is an interesting thing. Some days, when it is just our little family hanging out, I tend to forget that our child has autism. Since every day we have together is our normal, it doesn’t really stand out. Our son is a pretty awesome little dude… he is happy, loving, affectionate, quirky and quite frankly- smart. Every day he learns a little more and surprises us with something new. So, sometimes, I actually have moments where I forget that S has autism. I’ll think, ‘sure, he’s quirky, but he just counted to 13… our kid must be normal’! Then, we venture into public… where there are other families and other children and it is like someone takes out a big, fat, gigantic autism belt and slaps you across the face. There is no denying autism when you are around other typically developing children. It is there, front and center, with big flashing lights and loud sirens- screaming “YOUR KID IS DIFFERENT”. Quite frankly, it sucks.

Today is S’s second birthday. Since S loves fish (or as he calls them ‘Ish! Ish’!) we decided to take our little family to the Aquarium- you know, an upgrade to our usual visit to PetSmart. S usually loves a good trip to PetSmart to view the ‘ish’ and ‘fogs’ and we just knew he was going to love the aquarium. We decided that since I now work from home most days, and will have more time to spend with S during the week, that we would opt to become members so that we can return throughout the year. We paid our steep $109 for the family pass and walked excitedly through the aquarium entrance. I’m not going to lie… I was pretty excited about taking S to see the ‘ish’ and had been for weeks now. I was looking forward to the bright, wide eyes and dropped jaw as he saw lemon sharks, sting ray and the octopus. I couldn’t wait to see his face when we got to the grouper, the shark walk and the jelly fish exhibit. I had this idealistic idea that S would be overcome with excitement and wonderment as he saw all of these amazing sea creatures for the first time, and then, before we left, we would take him to pick out a birthday toy from the gift shop. At least, that’s how I remember birthday trips to the aquarium when I was a child. However, my sister and I are not autistic and autism is a definite game-changer.

Instead, the wide-eyed glimpses of the fish were quickly replaced by S’s focus on stairs. S LOVES stairs. Anywhere we go… Storyville, friend’s houses, our house, the mall, you name it… S will find the stairs and be content going up and down them forever. S also found many other interesting things at the aquarium. There were benches, more stairs, doors, and pictures on the wall. S is also obsessed with skateboards. This kid can turn anything into a skateboard… a piece of cardboard, a nail file, anything really. I’m not sure what he saw at the aquarium today that reminded him of a skateboard, but he kept saying “skateboard” over and over again. Oh, and the ledges that they have for kids to stand on to view the exhibits?.. yeah, those were stairs as well. He just wanted to go up and down them over and over again… completely oblivious to the large eel or group of penguins in his line of sight.

As a parent who was excited to see the aquarium through her child’s eyes, this trip was initially pretty disappointing. Other families viewed the exhibits,  and parents pointed out animals to their eagerly attentive children and enjoyed watching their children look in amazement at the 10′ fish and tubes of jelly fish. S, well, he just wanted to run, climb stairs and look for skateboards. It is tough as a parent to have to let go of the things that you wanted for your child. Obviously, I wanted my child to enjoy the fish. My child wanted to climb stairs. Luckily, my wise and loving husband was there to remind me that it didn’t matter if S was in jaw-dropping awe of the fish. He was having a great time climbing stairs and running down the ramp. And, while that may not be what I wanted for him, he was truly happy and that is what is important.

Autism is a funny thing. Right now, my child is a pretty happy little guy- it is just that different things make him happy than most children. The hard part is accepting that as a parent. It’s tough and I know that it’s not over. Our little trip to the aquarium is just one of many trips out in public that our little family will take. There will be birthday parties, museums, play dates, trips to the park and, thanks to our family pass, many more trips to the aquarium to climb the stairs. And everywhere we go, there will be other happy families, going about their day, enjoying their time as they envisioned. And for us, there will always be autism, reminding us that our child is different.  The trick for me will be learning to enjoy it as much as our son does.