#15: One Step
It snowed last night, a rare occurrence here in north Texas. We awoke to the view of a pristine white blanket covering our neighborhood, camouflaging the frosty mud that lay underneath.
E is mesmerized by the view. After a long afternoon at occupational therapy yesterday, a day at home to explore this new phenomenon is just what he needs.
I bundle him up in his winter wear, ensuring that no tags, zippers, or other problematic textures are touching his skin, and we head out to the backyard.
His eyes get big as he hears the snow crunch under his feet. He looks down and takes another step, slowly and purposefully, listening for the crunch as he puts his foot into the snow. When he hears it he looks up and says in a soft, awe-filled voice, “Oooooohhh.”
He bends over to touch the snow with his mitten-covered hands. He presses on the snow, hearing it crunch again. He smiles, seeming satisfied to discover that his hands and feet can make the same sound in the snow.
I’m taking this all in. This moment where I can almost see him processing this new texture, this new sound through his brain. Observing, listening, watching. Giving himself time to experience. To just be. To learn. To know.
This is how he operates. How he learns. And it’s beautiful.
The peace of this moment is quite a contrast to his therapy session yesterday. It was brutal.
We are a few weeks in to our twice-weekly schedule of occupational therapy now, and the sessions are getting harder. Intentionally so.
The first couple of sessions were about acclimating to the environment, building trust with the therapist (Miss K), and slowly wading into the areas where he needs the most help right now: transitions, fine motor skills and sensory development. Now the demands are getting higher with each session.
Last week, for example, he was given a small snack plate with a preferred item and non-preferred item of similar texture – goldfish crackers and carrot sticks. Both orange. Both hard. Both crunchy. But he only wanted to eat the goldfish.
Miss K worked with him until he would at least pick up the carrot stick in his hand. That took nearly 45 minutes.
At the next session he was given the same snack plate – goldfish and carrot sticks – but this time before he could eat any goldfish he had to pick up the carrot stick and smell it. After 30 minutes, much resistance, and lots of tears (from him and me), he picked up the carrot and smelled it. Then he dropped it like a hot potato and gobbled up his goldfish crackers, tears still on his face.
Yesterday the bar was raised even further. Pick up the carrot, smell it, and lick it. Then, and only then, could he have his beloved crackers.
Total. Epic. Meltdown.
Screaming, crying, pushing away the plate and anything else within his reach. Trying to crawl under the table. Curling into a ball and covering his ears as he cried.
I had to leave the room. Parents are supposed to be a part of each therapy session; this training is for us, too, so we learn how to implement the strategies at home as well.
But I couldn’t do it. I ducked out of the room before my son could see me losing it completely.
From the hallway I could still hear his screams. The banging as he flailed around pushing things away from him. I looked up and through my tears saw two other children working in the open “motor lab” area with their parents and therapists; the parents were looking at me with sympathy.
“At least they’re not judging E, or me,” I thought. “At least they probably get it.”
I walked over to a vacant desk in the corner and grabbed tissues from the box perched there, turning away from the other parents as I tried to compose myself. As I covered my face with the tissue I paused and whispered, “God please, give him peace. Bring your peace into that room. Help my baby boy. He needs your peace badly. He needs you NOW.”
I took a deep breath, steeling myself to go back into the room where Miss K was still working with E, and walked toward the door. Pushing it open I was greeted with an incredible sight: Miss K was sitting cross-legged on the floor in front of E, holding goldfish crackers in one hand and the carrot stick in the other. E was sitting up looking at her hands, his tear-stained face still red, but he had stopped crying.
Frozen in the doorway, I watched as he took the carrot in one hand and pulled it close to his eyes, inspecting it from every angle, and then smelling it.
“Just one tiny lick, E,” Miss K said quietly, “and then you can have your crackers.”
He looked at the crackers in her hand, then squinting his eyes he stuck out his tongue and touched the tip of it to the carrot for a split second.
“Great job, E!” Miss K responded calmly, but with enthusiasm. She handed him the crackers immediately to reinforce his action, and suddenly all was right with the world. I exhaled, realizing suddenly that I’d been holding my breath.
Physically and emotionally spent from the carrot battle, he was finished for the day. He fell asleep before we made it home. But he’d won. We’d won.
A crunch of snow and squeal of laughter jolt me back to today. To this moment in the snow.
What a difference a day makes. Where yesterday there was resistance and tears, today there is wonderment and joy. Both days brought a new texture, a new experience – but today E is learning on his terms: joyfully treading a path in the snow as he giggles with each new crunch beneath his feet.
Each crunch is one more step taken in this autism journey. One step stronger. One step more developed.
There will be many more battles ahead. And those too we will have to take one step at a time.
One more step. One more victory.