Tuesday, May 21, 2013

Why I bought my son an ice cream cone for lying...

In our home, media access is an earned privilege. Twenty minutes of coveted time on the iPad comes at a price. For Henry, our son with autism, this reward is granted only after reviewing his daily behavior sheet from the school. Assuming he has less than five marks for disruptions or refusals to comply with classroom requests, he may play a game or write a story while I cook dinner. If he has not met the given criteria, he gets to spend some quality time chopping, peeling, dicing and mixing alongside his father and I as we prepare the evening meal.

I picked Henry up form school the other day, and went to open his book bag in search of the daily behavior report. Henry raced over. "No paper today, mom. They forgot it." I looked at him, questioningly.

Really, Henry? Let me see. Hand me your backpack.

He stared sternly at his toes. He then grabbed his backpack off the hook in his cubby, placed the straps over his shoulders, and backed slowly away from me. "There is nothing to see. No paper. Not today." Then, speaking in third person as his usual custom, he answered, "Henry had a great day!"

It was comical, actually. He thought he was entirely convincing. His sister glanced up at me. "He's obviously lying, mom. He obviously got in trouble." Then, spinning to her brother, "You, Henry, are a dirty liar."

Henry looked disappointed, but not yet defeated. He sprinted out to the car, clutching the zipper on the book bag.

Finally, as he buckled his seat belt, I grabbed his bag. He reached for it, but then gave up. I opened the zipper, and looked at a sheet littered with marks. He waited.

Henry, it looks like you had a hard day. Some days are like that. I'm sorry it was so tough, but you can't have any media time tonight.

He didn't quibble. In fact, he didn't say a word. His sister, on the other hand, was quick to chime in: "And because you are a dirty liar, you are going to spend the night in your room. All alone. Because no one likes a dirty liar."

I sighed as Henry started to protest at his sister's directives. No, Midori. Henry will not have to spend the night in his room. You be nice to your brother.

The truth was that his lying was anything but an irritation to me. Kids lie. Kids without autism. But people with autism are known for brutal honesty because, as a rule, they lack the social understandings to weave complex tales...to manipulate. It's a social story just out of autism's grasp. Manipulation, after all, requires empathy and imagination. When Henry was first diagnosed with autism, we were told that he would lack both those characteristics. The idea that we would raise a child incapable of being empathic was, to me, the hardest notion to bear.

As any parent of a child with autism will tell you, that stereotyped characterization of the autistic is wrong. Henry's expressions of compassion are markedly different, and often socially awkward...but they are there. He once tried to soothe a crying toddler by complimenting her feet. "Nice arches. They are not so flat." And when his sister fell out of bed and hit her head, he wrapped her entire face with masking tape in an attempt to "make a Band-Aid big enough to fix her." Misguided? Perhaps. But sensitive, nonetheless.

And so I silently celebrated a milestone that is irksome to so many. I took my kids out for ice cream to honor my child's first lie...or, rather, another step in his progress toward being a part of a world that is sometimes so hard for him to fully access.

It's a bit of a Buddhist thing, that the moments which so many parents lament - My child lies - can be moments of joy in another context. It was yet another instant when having a child with a different set of rules and expectations opened me to seeing things in a different way. "Good" and "Bad" are illusions of the mind, not intrinsic realities. The things for which we scold our children can be gifts, when measured by the proper yardstick.