I heard the screaming from the door. It was dark out, but we let the boys stay out to play in the piles of newly fallen snow. The scream was one that I knew well, one that I’ve heard for more hours than I can count, a scream that could well be the tagline to Casey’s autism.
I threw on the closest shoes I had to me- sandals- and ran down to see what had happened. Apparently Casey had thrown a snowball at a three year old and hit him in the face. The three year old’s mother was rightfully angry and had done what we have always told our neighbors to do- treat him like any other kid- send him home. Casey didn’t want to go home, and was freaking out.
He didn’t understand. Everyone was throwing snowballs. Even the three year old. He didn’t understand the difference between throwing a snowball at another 9 year old and throwing one at a three year old.
Feet freezing in the dim porch light of the crying toddler’s house, I wrapped my arms around super-tall-for-his-age son and tried to lift him from his tantrum position, half buried under the snow. He struggled against me for a minute, and then seeing that I wasn’t going to let him continue as he was, he got up and walked home with me, wailing the entire way.
When I got home I called my neighbor to apologize. I sort of wanted to tell her that because he is autistic, he didn’t understand the difference. That throwing the snowball at her little boy wasn’t really his fault. Problem is, it was his fault. He did throw that snowball. I don’t want my son to think that he lives in a world where he isn’t accountable because of his disability. His actions were unacceptable, and there are consequences.
It’s a tricky line to walk, and I’m never sure I’m doing it well. Casey’s autism causes a lot of confusion in a lot of areas. There are autistic behaviors that do not need to be mediated. He can stim all he wants. He needs that, and it doesn’t hurt anyone. I could care less if he “looks” normal. But there are some that are a function of the autism that I’m not okay with allowing to go on.
Another example. The other night we were playing the game Headbandz, which my kids are just terrible at. They all kept accidentally shouting out the answers, and it got funnier each time it happened. When Casey did it, we laughed, and he got really really mad and said some pretty mean stuff. He was mad because he thought we were laughing at him instead of with him. That was the autism. Does it mean that I allow for him to say mean things? No.
As much as I wish it were, the world isn’t autism friendly. People aren’t going to say “Oh, it’s okay that that guy just called me an asshole because he’s autistic.” It’s just not that way. And I’m doing my son a disservice if I don’t try to help him understand things like sarcasm, idioms and accountability for mistakes that happen- even if they come in the wake of his simply not understanding what really had been said or done. He knows, even at 9, that he’s different and people don’t understand him. That’s hard. But people aren’t going to even TRY to get him if he’s terrible to be around.
I refuse to let him use his autism as an excuse to be a brat. The same way I refuse to allow ANY of my kids to not be accountable for their actions or to act like jerks. I am doing my best to teach my kids that what matters most is just to be nice. It doesn’t mean that you let people get away with being jerks to you either, but you don’t match them tit for tat. Because MOST of the time, people don’t mean to be mean. Most of the time, whether you are typical or autistic, people are just simply misunderstood. If Casey’s going to want for people to try to understand him and give him the benefit of the doubt, he needs to learn to do the same, to the best of his abilities.
The next morning, we got on our boots and winter gear and walked over for Casey to apologize. Casey had spent the night feeling badly that he had hurt a small child. Had we had written off the incident as a symptom of his autism, he would have never had the opportunity to learn why what he had done was wrong. Am I sure he gets it now? Probably no. But we’ll keep working on it.