©2016 Jennifer Noonan, All Rights Reserved.
As clearly as I remember my thoughts as I was being told my son was autistic, I also remember the moment I actually believed it. We were at a playground we’d never been to before, recommended by Melanie because it had a gigantic sand pit with life-sized fossils molded into the concrete underneath so kids could dig up dinosaur skeletons just like a real archaeological site. She said they had dozens of plastic shovels and buckets lying around for everyone to use, a rare example of neighbors being neighborly and no one screwing it up for the rest.
What she didn’t mention, however, was that the playground was set fairly far back inside the park, more than a quarter-mile hike from the parking lot. She also didn’t explain that in addition to shovels and buckets, there were a dozen toy diggers, dump trucks, bulldozers, and excavators, just begging to be lined up across the sand.
As soon as we crested the hill, I knew we were in trouble.
There were only a couple of other kids at first, and they were intent on the main attraction of the dinosaur bones. Paul scampered about gleefully collecting trucks while in my head I was already planning what follow-up activity I would have to promise in order to draw him away from the siren call of vehicles. My usual go-to choice was food—he loved to eat, and I had learned long ago to always go to the park hungry so he would be motivated to leave without a fight. Normal lunch wasn’t going to cut it this time, however. Maybe take him to his favorite place, Thundercloud Subs? No, that wouldn’t work, because the new routine we had established was that we went to Thundercloud after therapy each Tuesday, and if we went to that shopping center now, he would see the therapy clinic across the parking lot and be determined to go inside to see Melanie first.
I could take him to a different Thundercloud location, if I could call a friend to look online for me and tell me the next-closest one. That would set the precedent in his mind of always going to that Thundercloud after coming to this park, but it didn’t matter because I already knew we were never coming back here again. Toy trucks in a public place? Please.
Or maybe swimming, I thought. It was far too cold, but Paul didn’t know that. I would use the promise of it to get him home, then inflate the pool in the backyard and let him be the one to tell me swimming was all done after all. Just as I had settled on this plan, people started streaming into the dinosaur area at an alarming rate. It must have been a regular playgroup that had scheduled a date here, because more than twenty kids suddenly descended on the place at the same time, with the moms all chatting as if they knew one another.
I panicked, but it was too late. The first of the swarm had already started grabbing trucks and playing with them, and more were headed towards the other end of Paul’s line even as he tried to take back the ones he’d lost.
“It’s okay, sweetheart, you can take turns,” I cajoled. “Those trucks don’t belong to you. First his turn, then Paul’s turn. No, not your turn yet…”
He heard nothing. The whining escalated to shouting. I chased after him.
“Paul, do you want to go swimming? Hey, let’s go swimming! First swimming, then Thundercloud!”
Even if I were willing to let him be a bully and snatch the trucks away from the other children, he could never have kept up with all of them anyway. The random thought crept into my mind that this was why the Roman Empire had fallen. He had spread his troops too thin.
“Ay-yuh-yuh digger! Ay-yuh-yuh excavator! Ay-yuh-yuh digger!” he screeched, twisting in circles and growing more frantic. I picked him up and placed him in front of the few trucks that were still available, quickly putting them in a perfect line and asking him what color they were, and could he count them? But he shook his head back and forth and flung his body sideways with a deep-throated yell, flopping across the sand like a seal towards the nearest group of children.
I blocked his path with my body, holding one truck out desperately.
“Oh, Paul, look! Here’s your truck. Let’s take it swimming with us.” Screw it, I thought, we’ll be the bad neighbors and steal the toy. I can bring it back later.
But it was no use. We were done, and I knew what was coming.
He roared and scrambled to his feet to run around me, and when I put my arms around his waist, he flung himself backwards so hard his legs went vertical and his head almost hit the ground. I caught him and held him tightly in a cradled position, and he gave in to all-out screaming, legs kicking violently out to the side, my arm expertly wrapped around his hips so he couldn’t get a good angle to swing round and kick me.
I squatted there in the middle of the sand pit, just holding tightly and waiting for him to breathe between screams so I could take advantage of the pause to stand up without losing my grip on him. I assume everyone was staring at us by this point, but I couldn’t see anything except his face as I got in very close and tried one last time to bring him back to me.
“Paul,” I said as softly as I could, our noses almost touching. “Paul, swimming or no swimming? Do you want swimming?”
He calmed for just a heartbeat; I saw the connection being made, the pleading in his eyes… and then some little boy drove right by us making truck noises, and all hope was lost. I could have kicked that kid myself, but I’m pretty sure Paul got him solidly in the leg as he let out a violent wail and thrashed every muscle in his body at once. I daresay it served that kid right. You don’t go playing near wild animals; that’s just common sense.
It certainly wasn’t the first time I had hauled Paul away from a public place in the throes of a meltdown, not by a long shot. But normally, I was able to leave my daughter within sight in her baby carrier, force Paul into his own five-point harness, and then come back for her. This time the parking lot was too far away. I was much farther from safety than I’d ever been before, alone with both kids.
I shuffled over to Marie’s stroller on the edge of the sand pit, where she stared at us curiously. If nothing else I felt incredibly lucky that my second child was an easy one. If I’d had two Pauls, we would have been prisoners in our home.
Still holding his wrenching, screeching body with all my might, I used my elbows to awkwardly turn her stroller around and began slowly trekking back down the walkway, bumping her forward with my hips every couple of steps. Just then, at the peak of my defeat and the start of what promised to be a very long walk of shame back to the car, I heard a little boy’s voice nearby over the sound of my son’s anguish.
“Mommy, I want to ride on this one!”
I turned my head to see this child climbing eagerly onto a swing. He was at least a year younger than Paul.
And there it was. A normal kid versus my kid. That kid wanted to ride swings, not spend all his time putting trucks in a long, straight line. That kid spoke in sentences and used pronouns. That kid called his mother “Mommy.” That kid was barely a toddler.
Paul didn’t just have OCD, or ADHD, or a few sensory issues, or need a little speech therapy. Paul was autistic.
The two moms at the swings stopped their conversation and stared at us as we shuffled by. For a moment Paul’s strength got the better of me; we wrestled for a new position, and he ended up hanging upside down, both my arms around his waist and my head planted jarringly against his thigh to avoid being kicked in the head. I eked out a few more steps this way—any way was fine as long as we were making progress—until I had to stop and squat down again to reclaim a better hold on him.
The two women just kept staring, the pendulums of their children’s swings slowly dwindling as their arms hung limply at their sides in shock.
I forced a wry grin that came out more like a grimace and mumbled, “It’s fun, isn’t it?”
My attempt at motherly solidarity fell flat. They didn’t respond, nor did either one come forward to help me push my daughter’s stroller.
“I highly recommend not having an autistic child,” I tried again, giving a helpless smile, and still got nothing. One of them looked like she might be about to take her child off the swings just to get away from us.
I resumed hobbling forward, step-step-hip to the stroller, my biceps aching and my ears ringing. About halfway back I was sure my muscles were going to give out, and I was struck with sudden inspiration. We were over the hill and out of sight of the playground by now, so I spun in a circle several times to disorient him, turning the stroller off-kilter with one foot, and then said, “Okay, Paul, did you want to go back to the playground? Let’s go back to the playground!” Then I set him down in the direction of the parking lot and urged him forward.
He took off running as fast as he could, and I chased him down with the stroller, covering the ground all the way until the cars came into view. He skidded to a confused halt and spun around, but I scooped him up again and continued forward. We’d covered maybe fifty feet with this trick but still had at least fifty more to go.
After another eternity and several new bruises I had him forcibly buckled into his car seat. I shut the door between us and leaned against the car, listening to his muffled screams, my trembling arms too useless to even pick my daughter up out of her stroller.
It wasn’t until ten minutes later, after I’d finally gotten her seated, and the stroller folded and shoved in the back, and the radio turned all the way up to drown out the screaming, that I stopped and allowed myself to cry.
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