Parenting a Child Who Shows Up Differently

Do you like to play? I do, I love getting to play with kids especially. I want to check in as a parent, does your child have a lot of playdates? Do you get to hang out consistently with other moms or dads? Or do you have fewer opportunities for social time? Or maybe, not even any? What's it been like for you as a parent? Especially now, because a lot of things have changed.

I know when Rylan was younger social interactions really stretched him.  They stretched his window of tolerance, yet at the same time he longed for companionship and fun. To have time with others. Where we lived previously was in a rural district out in the middle of 3,000 acres of wheat fields. So, playdates and get-togethers with friends and family were definitely planned in advance.

One time a close friend and I arranged to get-together to have coffee while her two young sons, who were eight and five years old at the time, played with Rylan for a few hours. That was a little bit of heaven back then.

Rylan and I were excited getting ready to have friends over. Yet when I would think about it a would get a niggle of anxiety in my tummy. I remembered how supportive prehearsals are to contribute towards predictability and trust, both are key players when you want to play. Especially when venturing out into the social world. I noticed in the moment as I named those needs for myself, my internal system calmed. I invited Rylan to snuggle with me on the couch and I checked in with him. 

I asked, "Do you remember what happens for Sammy if you begin to feel overwhelmed?" 

"He gets really anxious and worried about whether or not I'm okay," Rylan replied. 

"Ah, he really cares for your well-being, doesn't he?" I affirmed. 

Then I asked more, "Have you noticed anything about Jason?" 

After he thought about it he said, "He wants to choose what he'll do all the time now." 

"Yeah," I agreed, "he's growing up quickly, isn't he? When you're bigger, you like having lots of choices, don't you?" 

"Yeah," Rylan smiled in agreement. 

One of the things Rylan and I had established between us was when he started to feel that his energy was getting big, he would run to me and I would welcome him with open arms. So, I reminded him of that and he agreed. "Remember to run to me for support when you notice your energy is getting big, okay? I'll be right here for you, buddy." "Okay, Mom." 

While my friend and I visited, we stayed in close proximity where we could see the boys. I observed Rylan was expressing anxiety, his body squirming and his face wincing, especially when the boys asked to have a turn playing a game on the PlayStation. I moved my body in close to help them transition and placed myself between Rylan and the boys. Yet, when my hands touched the game system, it was a cue for Rylan's nervous system, and it ignited. 

He grabbed both of my hands with force and exclaimed, "Do not ever touch this again - it's mine!" 

I was really surprised and said, "Rylan I'm here," I saw the little boys ran quickly to their mom. 

Slowing things down right away I gathered Rylan to me, and we moved to the bedroom so we could have some privacy. I took a moment to self-connect because I was very stimulated in that moment. I said honestly, "Rylan, I'm noticing all I want to do is give you information, so I'm wondering, what is up with you?" 

Hi response was, "It's just so hard to stay calm. I need Jesse! He's my only friend, and only he calms me down when I get upset, instead of me needing to stay calm for others! I wish I had a knife! I'd just stab myself here," he thrust his hands on his chest, "and no one would have to calm me down again ever!" 

I felt my own system begin to flood. Then he suddenly threw his arms about my neck, pulled me close, and said with urgency, "Quick, we need a limbic tackle!" 

Instantaneously I felt my whole nervous system calm and warmth radiate out from my belly and my heart. "Ah Rylan, thank you for remembering how to calm us both," I said with a deep sigh. We held each other close in a warm embrace for a moment and I felt a sense of awe at his new-found ability to track and take action that contributed towards his needs as well as mine. 

After resting a few minutes, Rylan wanted to go back out to see his friends. He said, "I'm sorry, Sammy, I didn't mean to scare you. I'm sorry, Jason." 

Jason was quite solemn as he said, "I accept your apology." 

Sammy said with a smile, "I accept your apology too."

Then Rylan invited them to play Batman and Robin together, and he even set the timer. 

Later that night before we would go to sleep, we would have a little check in, an opportunity to talk about anything that had happened during the day. Rylan whispered to me and said, "Mom do I have autism? Like Temple Grandin?" 

I realized we had watched her movie, and I said, " mean are you sensitive like Temple, seeing things differently than others? Like it's hard to get what others want socially and stay present with what you want at the same time?" 

"Yeah, sometimes it's so hard to stay calm, and people just don't understand." he stressed. 

I agreed, "Yeah, like today with the boys when it was so hard with the video game?" 

"Uh-huh," he said. 

I made some guesses, I asked, "You really want to play and have fun, and at the same time you feel overwhelmed how others want to play and have fun, and big energy comes up?" 

He acknowledged, "Yeah - that was so hard for me Mom, to let them play the game and just watch." 

I acknowledged that I could see that, I said, “You even set the timer. I felt so surprised at the time, because I knew that stretched your window of tolerance." 

He was like, "Yeah, I thought I would burst!" 

I said, "I celebrate with you how you were able to stay present, Rylan, because that is really huge! You know, when you stretch yourself like that, you'll notice it will get easier over time." 

"It will?" He sighed with relief, "Good!" 

The next night we watched a movie, and these are some of the things that can happen in a relationship, with everyday things. It’s important at the end of the day to have a moment where you can connect and encourage your child to filter through whatever may still be lingering that they are wanting to make sense out of.

We had watched the movie, "Where the Wild Things Are," and when the energy got big, Rylan felt really frightened. He needed comfort and reassurance. He asked me, "Do the boy and Carol, (the Wild Things main character) have autism too?" 

So, showing up differently was really on his mind, and what really stands out to me right now, is the need that we all have; to be seen and held with compassionate understanding, especially when our system feels overwhelmed and we might show up with "big energy." 

We need to have someone on the sidelines welcoming us with arms opened wide, to absorb all the energy our system radiates, and to cradle us in their lap with comforting warm compassion for as long as we want to be held, with no expectations to do anything, just lovingly offering understanding and calm. That is such a gift. 

Something I’ve always done is I’ve paid attention, I want to make sure that my son is comfortable sharing his story being shared openly in the world, because I know I was nervous about my story being shared openly in the world. So, I’ve always read the stories that I write out loud to him before I would publish them. But this time, after these experiences and I read this to him, he flushed, and looked really concerned and said, "Mom, don't write about autism! I feel embarrassed!" 

I checked in around that, I said, "You feel embarrassed you asked about autism, or that you identified with Temple, who said she has autism? Are you worried people will see you differently?" 

He squirmed in his chair and he didn’t know. 

So, I made another guess, "Do you want to be seen for who you are, do you like to be included, and feel you belong, especially with people you care about?" 

He shrugged and said, “Maybe.” 

I then went a different route, I said, "Let's remember the movie. What did Temple say about autism?" 

He frowned as he thought about it, then said, "She said that she had it, and that she could see in pictures." 

"Yeah!” I agreed, “And so, she could see things that other people couldn’t, right?" His body relaxed as he answered with, “Yeah.”

I came up with an idea and said, "You know, I think sometimes it can be helpful, just to better understand things, to have a word to name it. Like eyes. For instance, some people have blue eyes, some green, some brown, some hazel, and some people have eyes that seem to change color depending on their mood or what color they are wearing! Have you ever noticed that?" I asked him with a grin. "Yeah,” he said, “like me!" 

I continued, "Being able to name eye color really helps being able to appreciate how someone is different from other people, and it can even help you recognize them. Everyone is different; being able to identify how someone is different can help you to understand them easier. Because, you know, there are a lot of people out there, and not many of them really understand how different people are, especially people that show up on the autism spectrum.”

I explained, “Autism, it is just a name. There are all kinds of differences people with autism have from one another, but the one thing they all have in common is that they think differently than people who don't have autism. They have shortcuts and ways to think about things that other people don't.” I checked in, “Does that make sense?" 

And Rylan at the time said, "You mean like cheats for Lego Batman?" his eyes were shining bright with resonance. "Yeah, now that's a real shortcut, isn't it!" I agreed. 

I further reflected, "I noticed when Temple said, 'I have autism', other people could begin to make sense of why she did some things differently than they did, and they listened to her. She made a big difference for so many people, and animals, by standing up and sharing information. Do you remember why Mom writes stories about our experiences?" I asked. 

"To help other Moms and Dads and kids. I know." 

"That's part of it," I responded, "but, you know, it really helps me most of all." Rylan looked up at me in surprise as I continued, "When I write our story, it helps me make sense of what has happened, and I can see things more clearly. Like how a posthearsal helps me see how I might do things differently next time, or understand better why you did something you did, or appreciate how amazing what you did was! It helps me grow as a mom, and I want to help all the other Moms out there, and Dads, who may experience some of what I do as a parent. And I also want to help all the kids out there, especially those to show up different. I want them to be held with unconditional love and understanding. Does that make sense?" 

Rylan, he responded, "Yeah. Maybe you can email me the stories when I'm a dad to help me remember too!" 

I replied, "Great idea buddy!" It brings tears to my eyes remembering that moment.

When we take time to reflect on our experiences and be open to how it might look and feel different, it’s a powerful tool in relationships. You can call it post-hearsals or you can call it time-travel empathy.


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