#13: New Normal
The holiday season is upon us. As we continue our quest to find our new normal, the rhythm of life moves on. Holiday gifts to buy, food to cook, friends and family to entertain.
Today we have what for most people is a simple, routine task: grocery shopping. Like most moms, I much prefer grocery shopping on my own. I want to get in, get what we need, and get out. Most weeks my husband and I work it out so that I do the shopping on a night he is home from work, but that wasn’t possible this week. He’s working extra shifts, so the kids will need to go with me this time.
I’m dreading it. It’s been months since I’ve taken E to a store. And for good reason.
Three months ago I took him with me to a discount superstore, and the moment we walked through the automatic doors the downhill spiral began. He stopped in his tracks and let go of my hand as he squeezed his eyes closed and covered his ears, wincing as if in pain. I picked him up quickly before the people behind us ran into him, and attempted to get him seated in the shopping cart. Still clutching his ears, he arched his back and started screaming.
Several people stopped to stare. I remember glancing up and seeing a woman a few feet away, shaking her head and clucking her tongue in disapproval. I could read the judgment on her face. “Why can’t you control your child? What kind of mother are you, letting your child throw a tantrum like that?”
My face burning with shame, I had set E down on the floor and gotten down on my knees in front of him, holding his arms. “Baby, what’s wrong? What hurts? You’re scaring Mommy. Do your ears hurt?”
No answer, just continued screams and tears.
There were more curious stares from passing customers, some with looks of pity, some with disgust, and one with genuine concern. Another mom with a young boy in her cart that appeared to be about the same age as E, wearing what looked like earmuffs. She nodded her head empathetically. The look of sadness on her face struck me as she passed by, heading out the doors.
I had a flashback to the experience at the Sesame Street Live show. E wouldn’t open his eyes then, either. He wouldn’t stop crying. “No grocery list is worth this,” I’d thought. “We have to get out of here.”
I scooped E up in my arms and hurried back to my car, scanning the parking lot for the mom that had looked at me with such understanding, such empathy. She was nowhere to be seen. What does she know that I don’t, I wondered.
“We’re going home, baby. Don’t worry, we’re going home,” I said softly to E, trying to soothe him as I’d buckled him into his car seat. His crying had eased once he was back in the car, and he clutched his blue blankie to his face and fell asleep. He looked exhausted.
My plan was to never take him to a big store again; well, at least not for a long time. But here we are a few months later, staring this mountain in the face. Hoping there’s not a cliff on the other side.
Armed with the knowledge of his diagnosis and weeks of online research about autism, this time I’m going to approach it differently.
“E, we need to go to the store today, all together. And guess what? After we’re done, we will come straight home and Mommy has a special surprise for you!” He looks at me with interest. He’s not crying about having to go to the store. It’s a start.
I grab a notepad and jot down our task list, then place it in front of E. It reads simply:
While E is looking at the paper, I draw a square next to each task. “Okay, buddy, Mommy needs your help with our list,” I say, handing him a crayon. “I need you to hold onto this list and when we finish each job I need you to draw a check mark in the box next to it. Okay?”
“Okay!” he says enthusiastically, to my surprise.
I load the kids into the car, careful to ensure that E is wearing a jacket with a hood to cover his ears if the store is too loud, and that he has his blue blankie, the list, and his crayon. “Here we go!” I say cheerfully, my tone belying the dread I’m feeling.
A few minutes later we pull into the parking lot of a chain grocery store not far from our house; there’s no way I’m going back to the discount superstore with him, so here we are.
I grab a stray cart in the parking lot and load the kids into it, pulling E’s hood up over his head as I do so. I’m hoping the fact that his ears are covered and he’s already contained in a shopping cart will make the entrance into the store uneventful. E is clutching the list and his blankie as we approach the entrance. I’m watching him carefully as we walk in, ready to turn around and walk right back out if necessary.
As soon as we’re inside the doors his eyes widen, then he squeezes them closed. Oh no. No, no, no. Not again! I jump into action.
“E, how about we play hide-and-seek,” I say quietly, soothingly, leaning close to his ear. “You hide under blue blankie while Mommy and baby sister find the groceries, and then we’ll find YOU when we’re all done!” He pulls his blankie over his head and curls up tightly in the basket of the cart.
I waste no time. Moving quickly down the aisles, I grab only the things we absolutely need. I may only have a few minutes before this game doesn’t work anymore. I’m moving like I’m a contestant in a game show competing to win thousands of dollars. I WILL beat the clock.
Racing to the checkout lines I find the one closest to the exit, praying the cashier moves quickly. As I load our items onto the belt I talk to E softly, telling him everything I’m doing.
“Okay buddy, we’re almost done. Mommy found the food and it’s almost time to find YOU! Keep hiding!”
Thankfully the cashier gets us checked out quickly, and I make a beeline for the exit. As soon as we reach the car I lean into the cart and say, “Hmmmm…. Where is E? Baby sister, do you know where E went?”
A giggle. “OH! I think I hear him! Is he under this milk? No. Is he behind the bananas? No. Hmmm…” I slowly lift the blue blankie. “Is he under this blankie?” More giggles. “There he is!” I say as I pull the blankie off of him.
He’s smiling. SMILING. No tears, no screams, no arching back.
I feel like I’ve just won an Olympic event. My gold medal is his smile.
“Store. Check!” he says proudly, using his crayon to check off the little box on his list.
“You’re right, buddy!” I say with a big smile. “Now what’s next?”
“Home! Surprise!” he says.
“That’s right! Let’s go home and make some chocolate chip cookies!” His eyes light up. Homemade chocolate chip cookies are his favorite treat.
As we drive home I reflect on our outing.
To some it’s just grocery shopping. A routine task.
For E it is pure stress; a battle to survive a noisy, bright, cluttered, overwhelming environment.
To me, that survival is a victory. A victory that moves us one step closer to finding our new normal.