Today was a day full of apologies -- at least four of them that I can remember. The first apology of the day was made to a dear old friend and offered in the face of a broken promise. Another apology went to Sami when he pointed out that I was preoccupied and not listening to him fully. But it is the other two apologies that I want to write about here.
One of those apologies went to Oliver.
The last week or so has been tough on all of us. Inexplicably -- or seemingly so -- Oliver started behaving in a manner that was trying everyone's patience. There was lots and lots and lots of whining about everything. Lots of resistance to everyday activities. Lots of darting away. And lots of outright disobedience. As the days passed my patience did too. But that isn't a great measure of anything -- I'm not a patient person by nature. Rachel, on the other hand, is. Rachel is the young woman who has been Oliver's attendant for the last couple of years and I've submitted her name for possible sainthood. So when Rachel comes to me and says she is at her wits end (no, she doesn't say: "he's driving me craaaazy" as I might, she says: "I just don't know how to help him be more comfortable." See? She IS a saint.) Then I know for sure that something is going on and I go into sleuth mode. If you are the parent of a child with autism then you know what I'm talking about. I looked at the situation from all angles and tried to figure out how 2+2 somehow equaled 5.
BUT! Oliver can communicate now! Aha! I thought. I'll just ask him!!! And so I did. Or at least I tried. And tried again. I phrased the question a little differently each time. I tried asking him questions about things I thought might be the issue.I tried asking him specific questions. I tried asking him open-ended questions. But each time he answered without giving me any useful information. Like the following exchange:
Me: Oliver, why are you so upset lately?
Oliver: Because I want to go on the computer.
Me: But in general you seem very sad and angry everyday. Can you tell me why?
Oliver: I want to go outside.
Every so often I would try again. And I tried to also ask him frequently throughout the day for input into the things that were happening around him. What would he like? What was he feeling? Did he want to tell me anything?
Then, this afternoon he grew distressed when we sat down together at the piano. On the distress scale of 1 to 10, with ten being a meltdown, it was more like a 3. But it was the cumulative effect of days and days of hovering around a 3 or 4 that was wearing us all down and I was determined to figure it out. So I pulled Oliver to the couch with a pen and paper and tried again.
Me: Oliver, why are you so upset about playing the piano?
Oliver: Because it is too hard.
Me: What makes it hard for you?
Oliver: Please would you stop asking so many questions!
And then, everything clicked into focus. I had so badly wanted to hear what Oliver had to say but I wasn't really listening. He had told me how hard it was for him to write numerous times. For nine years he has related to the world in one way and now, almost overnight, there is this new -- enormous -- expectation that he relate to the world differently. I wasn't thinking about how overwhelming it must feel for him.
One of the initial lessons an RDI parent learns is to think carefully about how we are verbally communicating with our children. Normal, everyday dialog between communication partners is something like 80% experience sharing language (comments, exclamations, statements) and 20% questions. But somehow, when you introduce a child with autism to the equation, that ratio gets turned around and we wind up asking the poor kid questions all day long. We are so desperate to know what they know, think, and feel that we inadvertently challenge them to perform every time we communicate with them. Think of what it would feel like to be constantly expected to do the thing that is the hardest for you. And that, somehow, is what I did to Oliver.
It hit me like a ton of bricks.
And so I apologized. And I thanked Oliver for telling me how he felt. And for putting up with me.
Before bed tonight, I pulled him aside and wrote:
"I hope I'm doing a better job not asking questions." To which he responded: "Yes you are."
Me: Thank you for telling me how you felt.
Oliver: You're welcome.
Me: You still look sad.
Oliver: I'm not. I'm very happy.
So, the last apology that I offered today (I hope) was to myself. I was pretty hard on myself after Oliver's revelation. I tried not to imagine how trying I've been for my boy. I tried to forget how frustrated I've felt with him for the past week. I wish there were some rule book or coach. But there isn't. At the end of the day there is just me and the boy navigating this adventure together. And I hope I can be forgiven for forgetting that often the most meaningful answers are to questions never asked.