“Normal is nothing more than a cycle on a washing machine.”

2008-june-showalter-visit-0291This is a great quote from Whoopie Goldberg and one of many quotes I love about the word “normal.”
When anything or anyone departs from an accepted standard, we call that abnormal, odd, freakish. My son, Zachary, has been described with many of these adjectives and more over the course of the last 10 years. But none of those words really fit him. What he is is exceptional, extraordinary, rare and striking.
I had to add striking, because he really is. He’s a damn good looking kid. He has the most beautiful blue cow eyes and a leprachaun smile that would melt an iceberg. And when he smiles, he has this look, like he has some really delightful secret and he just can’t share it with you, not yet.

Zach sees the world in such a unique way that he has changed the way I, and the rest of this family, look at the world. The stereotype of an autistic person is that they are unfeeling, checked out, vacant, something is missing. I believe it is exactly the opposite. They feel too much, they are clued in to everything going on around them, they are filled to the brim with seeing, hearing, touching, tasting and it is overwhelming for them.

For my beautiful boy, the world is often too much and he is too much in it. He is easily frustrated and monumentally impatient.  Whenever there are any changes in the house, from the furniture to our routines, he is the first to notice and the first to object.  He is a visual learner and a stubborn one. If he doesn’t want to cooperate it is a real challenge to change his mind. He likes to repeat phrases from TV and commercials, he has an unending interest in Star Wars, Godzilla and any and all superheroes. He likes to wear costumes and he is not afraid to talk to anyone about anything.

I used to want to change him, make him more accepted, acceptable, less annoying, smaller! The struggle was exhausting.   Now, I try to welcome his “obsessions” and his stubborness, within reason.  And life is much more “normal” now that we’ve expanded what that means to us. In our home it’s normal to get into your pjs as soon as you get home. It’s normal to wear one mitten on your left hand for two weeks, no questions asked. It is normal to quote entire scenes from “Star Wars” and to never tire of a peanut butter and honey sandwich for lunch.

  Some of these “normal” habits have faded away over the years and I actually miss them. For instance, Zach used to say “bless you” when any of us passed gas. He used to insist that I sing a goodnight song without fail at bedtime. He also used to ask bearded men if they were George Lucas and he was positive the little girl next door was Wendy from Peter Pan.  I miss those things. 

But I can’t say I miss Zach leading a “normal” life, not anymore.  Somehow, somewhere it was decided that he should have an extraordinary life and we, his family, are along for the ride.


Raising Boys – Learning to Not Ask Why

Missing forks?

Missing forks?

I heard a comedian once compare raising children to living with dwarves on acid. I have to say it really feels like that sometimes. Or maybe boys are just more unruly, uncivilized, strange. They do weird things while they are trippin’ on growing up. I’ve learned to accept the weirdness, but I haven’t learned to accept it without wanting to know why. I am tortured on a day-to-day basis by the tiniest, strangest mysteries.  

I was thinking of this yesterday while I was cleaning the house. I have a cute little fake book/box I bought for our family room to keep (or I should say hide) the remote inside. So, after fishing it out of the sofa cushions, I went to replace it in the secret book and what do I find inside?  My eldest son’s toenails.  I know they belong to him since he asked me where the clippers were yesterday while lounging in front of the tube.

I could have asked him, Why? But I have learned from many such fruitless attempts that this route is pointless. I always get the same pat response: “I don’t know.”  Just once I would like a real answer, even a weird one. I can imagine several he could give me, such as: he didn’t want to get up, the box was there, he had a handful of toenails he wished to be rid of, no one was looking or he was pretending the clippings were pirate booty.

I would welcome these explantions because I am ever curious to the motives. There are many mysteries surrounding my children and I wish they would give me the answers. I think it would put my mind at peace if I could just know why.

My dear boys Why do you put the empty milk carton back in the fridge? Why collect Q-tip fuzz in your desk drawer? Why pee in the waste basket? Why melt crayons in the toaster? Why are there always Slim Jim wrappers in your hamper?

But, like many of the larger mysteries in life (Stonehenge, the Pyramids, why we still vote on Tuesdays) I think I shall never find the answers. And I will have to learn to live with that.

For the Love of Olive, Zach’s “Best Friend”

Olive Puppypants

Olive Puppypants

I had this idea months ago after reading a book about dogs and autism that what my kid really needed was pet therapy. The book had an adorable picture of an autistic kid clumsily hugging a dog. I wanted Zach to be that kid. I wanted him to have a big sloppy pooch to hug. I wanted a dog that would follow him around like Nana in Peter Pan. Or wait patiently by the front door when Zach came home on the short bus. A dog that would comfort him after a long day of being such a strange duck in such a typical world.

The benefits for him were endless- more empathy, a connection to something outside himself, a sense of responsibility, the joy of a non-judgemental companion, a friend!  The “friend” thing was what got me. It was the one thing Zach didn’t have.  Although he counts just about everyone as his “best friend”, from his teacher, Ms. Caitlin, to his brothers’ playmates, to his parents. We are all his “best friends.”  But a boy with a dog, oh, that sounded so good for him!

My search started with the internet, what were the best breeds for kids? What was better for a child with behavior issues, a grown dog or a puppy? I had it all planned out and decided to hit the local shelters. I found a lab mix that had been given up due to “financial hardship.” The dog’s backstory was heartbreaking. The family had a disabled daughter who was confined to a wheelchair, the father had lost his job, they had to move, their new place didn’t allow pets. It sounded great, at least for us. We brought the dog home on a Sunday afternoon. Zach was giggly and excited and in love with this dog. His love was unrequited though. This dog was skittish, hated to be hugged and more importantly, hated Zach. It didn’t wait by the door, it didn’t romp around the yard with him, it didn’t lick his face in greeting, or any of the other warm-and-fuzzy things I had imagined.

Instead, it growled when Zach tried to pet him, or hid whenever he approached. He didn’t react well to a child who was a vigorous petter, an enthusiastic hugger who had daily temper tantrums, unpredictable impulses and wielded a plastic light saber half the day. 

Our trial ended when the dog nipped at Zach’s cheek just a few days after we brought the dog home. So much for a best friend.  We returned the pooch to the shelter ( a no-kill shelter) and vowed to try again. I felt such a sense of failure – another avenue ventured for Zach and another dead-end. I would have given up on the whole idea, but Zach’s brothers wouldn’t. So we decided to give the idea a second chance.

A few months later we brought home a 10-week old puppy. Her mama was a bloodhound and her daddy was a lab. It sounded like a Johnny Cash song, which felt like good karma. She was jet black and had a strange baggy little face and a pointy knot on the top of her head.  Her coat shined like a race horse and her eyelids had the beginnings of a hound droop. The boys adored her at first sight.  They named her Olive.

Olive is 7-months old now. She weighs 60 plus and is still growing. She is not the dog I dreamt of for my son. But like most everything in life, I am learning to take the bitter with the sweet. Olive slobbers viscous amounts of stringy saliva whenever she is excited. (Zachy says “that’s disgusting.”) She slobbers bucketfulls whenever we take her in the car and vomits once we’re in motion. She is a loud barker and likes to howl. She is a messy eater and chews up things like a goat on crack. She hides treats in the sofa cushions. And housebreaking is an ongoing battle. She also has hideous gas –  it is musky, skunky and deadly. And it seems to happen most frequently on family movie night.

But then there is the sweet side. Her ears are long and droopy and feel like velvet in your hand. She gives clumsy kisses and loves clumsy hugs. She tolerates plastic light sabers and doesn’t bat at eye at daily temper tantrums, even mine. And, she even waits by the door for the short bus. 

She leans against my legs when I do the dishes, curls up next to me when I knit and lets me put my cold feet underneath her warm body when I am typing on this computer. She likes to look out the windows on her hind legs and has learned to sing for treats, especially hot dogs. She can jump through a hula hoop and she likes our cats. She is gentle with the baby and will retrieve anything the older boys throw for her, including empty milk jugs.

This furry wild child has given me just what I wanted for Zach and what I didn’t know I needed for me. She’s my best friend too.