Friday, October 11, 2013

Why didn’t you sign me up? Why didn’t I get to go to gymnastics like Midori?
Deep breath.

I had enrolled my five year old daughter in a Thursday night tumbling class because she really wanted to own a leotard - a sparkly red and black leotard with a giant gold star on it, to be specific. I figured it would be a good opportunity for her to wear tight and tacky clothes and roll around gracelessly. Turns out, I was right. What I had not foreseen was that her older brother, Henry, would think it looked like a boatload of fun. Or maybe it looked more fun precisely because he was excluded. Either way, as we sat in the viewing room above the gymnastics studio with a group of parents observing their children somersault and swing and jump and kick, Henry became increasingly upset.

How am I going to explain this to him? How can I tell him that this would never work? That he can’t participate?
Henry’s done a lot of organized sports, and with a good deal of success. He is an accomplished runner and has enjoyed soccer and basketball, too. But gymnastics is different. It’s pretty much incompatible with everything autism. In fact, when Henry was a toddler, we tried to take him to a parent-child gymnastics class, only to find him unwilling to participate, seated in a corner with his hands over his ears, rocking and screaming to himself. Not a resounding success.
The room is loud and echoes. The fluorescent lights flicker incessantly. There is a large group of children with only one adult to supervise. The tots have to hear instructions and follow directions. Things are often done one at a time, so there can be a lot of waiting around, patiently. It’s all about imitating the actions of another person.  The activities require fine motor skills. And, most importantly, I would be seated in the viewing room since parents are not allowed on the floor. Henry wouldn’t have the benefit of intervention from someone who knows and understands autism, someone who can provide the sort of gentle direction and redirection he often requires.
I had a million reservations. I was going over the list in my head: All the reasons Henry would find this frustrating, all the reasons it would fail. I imagined the instructor pulling me aside after the first class, and telling me that she would issue me a refund for the rest of the term. And then, I looked at Henry who had tears welling up in his eyes as he emphatically stated that he wanted to be with the other kids and do what they do.
Love is not tied to performance or accomplishment. I love my son not in spite of his incessant, repetitive questions or his tics and tantrums…I love him just because. Just because I choose to fill my heart with an ineffable, unstoppable and totally undeniable love that persists and sustains no matter what he does. That’s not to say that I don’t celebrate when he is successful. When he does something generous or wonderful, my heart swells with pride. When he struggles to write his name or screams uncontrollably for an hour, I can feel depressed and overwhelmed. But I am learning about a love that is bigger than all that.  
So, setting aside all my reservations and every expectation, I registered him for the next session.
Yesterday, after school, he ran home, dropped his book bag at the door and got dressed. His gym shorts were on backwards, his t-shirt inside out. Henry is ready for gymnastics!
Walking to the studio, with Henry’s hand clasped tightly around my own fingers and the sound of his familiar humming surrounding my ears, my previous reservations faded away. I learned long ago that Henry’s behaviors were not pathological, but purposeful. He hums to recalibrate and feel a sense of safety in himself. It’s actually kind of peaceful.
And that, really, has been my lesson to learn as Henry’s mother. When people do things that I find odd, I often judge or distance from them. But what if I were to consider that there might be reasons behind their behavior? How would my relationship to the world change if I spent less time judging what I don't understand, and more time building connection?
And so, in the spirit of suspending expectation, I dropped off my son at the door, and went to watch from the seats in the observation room. The instructor examined Henry’s attire, watched him spin a few times in the line of children, and nodded politely in my direction.
For the next hour, my son tried his best. When the other children crab-walked across the floor, he crawled in an attempt to emulate them as best he could. When they did a series of high kicks, he jumped up and down, with gleeful, erratic motions. When they bent down to touch their toes, he fell over, got back up, and tried again.
He sometimes ran about when he was not supposed to be moving. He preferred to simply hop on the trampoline than to attempt any of the tricks. Once, he ran out of the room to examine the brickwork on the wall outside. He often spun and flapped his arms and, through the sound proof walls of the observation room, I could see his lips purse in a constant, low hum. The other parents in the observation deck had their eyes trained on me, clearly wondering what was different about my son. Some had a look of obvious annoyance, others were merely inquisitive. I long ago shed my inhibitions, and I was proud of him for trying, proud when I watched him boldly walk the length of the thin balance beam, proud that he persisted. Henry was smiling. He was having fun.
When the class ended, I went to collect Henry from the waiting area.
How’d he do?
The teacher grinned. She looked at my son, smiling and clapping his hands over and over again.
He was brilliant. No one had more fun today than Henry. I hope he will be back next week!
Every day, I am participating in the miracle of my son. Lucky me.


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