Wednesday, October 12, 2011

You Like Cherry Soda?

Everything reverts back to Seinfeld. 

So says my husband who knows every episode and each year places a Festivus pole beside our Christmas tree.

In the show, titled “The Boyfriend”, Jerry says about friendships, “When you're in your thirties it's very hard to make a new friend…you’re not interested in seeing any applications… when you were a little kid what were the qualifications?  If someone's in front of my house NOW, That's my friend… And if you have anything in common at all, You like Cherry Soda? I like Cherry Soda! We'll be best friends!”

Fast forward thirty years later and Jerry is breaking up with a woman because she eats her peas one at a time. 

Funny, yes, but not too shocking to most of us.  We loved watching the antics of Jerry and his friends because we saw a lot of them in ourselves.  Who hasn’t turned down a date for what was, in retrospect, a very shallow reason?  

Somehow once autism comes along, we forget all about the peas and the other small infractions that people bring to the table. 

I remember when we found out that James had “delays.”  I remember how alone we felt and how painful it was to look at James next to our friends’ children.  They knew about some of James “issues,” but since we weren’t completely forthcoming about what was going on, it was like the elephant in the room.  They didn’t know what to say to us, so when we pulled away they probably felt relieved.

So there we were isolated from friends and feeling sad and scared.  I’ll never forget that day I met three other women who had children like James.  We met at a social skills group when our kids were three years old.  Like me, their lives at that point were all about their children and autism.  We were back to the simple days of cherry soda. “Your child has autism?  My child has autism!  We’ll be best friends!”

It was like meeting a man and having good chemistry.  Remember when you realized you could talk to your husband for hours on the phone, the feeling you got when you realized he “got” you?  This is what it was like for us.  A two-hour conversation felt like 15 minutes.  We talked about the baby years, dissecting every moment.  What did we miss?  Was it always “there”?  When did we notice something was “different”?  Should we have noticed it earlier?  When did we get the “diagnosis”?  Comparing doctors, nutritionists, pre-schools, therapists...  And broaching the million dollar question - will they be mainstreamed?  We could dare to go there and discuss that. 

We talked only a bit about our careers, families, and backgrounds, usually as it related to our kids.  Beyond that, our ages, hobbies, or religious and political beliefs were irrelevant.  For those months, we confided in our hopes and dreams – they were usually the same.  We wanted our kids to be able to communicate, to be happy, to be able to make friends, to be able to learn, to feel good about themselves. 

That was five years ago and we have since moved on to various other therapy programs and new schools.  When we happen to run into each other, we break out the cherry soda and get right down to business, asking how each other’s kids are doing.      

This past summer James started camp.  One couple offered to give us a ride to the camp’s annual Talent Show.  I had noticed that the wife was a kind of loud, even imperious, but it was nice that she offered us a ride.  My husband, Donald, had also met her and was skeptical.  He wanted us to go on our own, but I thought it would be rude not to accept their invitation.  We actually had some fun in the car – talking about our favorite episodes of Star Trek the Next Generation.

The next day I was reflecting on how nice the day turned out and suggested to Donald that we have the family over one night.  Their son is a lot older than James but he and James seemed like they might be able cultivate a big brother/little brother dynamic.  Donald wasn’t budging.  “She’s nuts,” he said.  I didn’t bother to pursue it.  I saw his point.

That’s when I realized that I had settled into my high functioning life.  I was back to looking at peas. 

“Your child has autism?  So does mine!  We’ll be best friends!” 

“Uh…not so fast…I don’t know…you’re nice but a little bossy and I’m not taking new applications today.”

Thursday, October 6, 2011

Parenthood (the TV show)

Truthfully, I have no idea if I would the watch Parenthood if it wasn’t for Max.  I skim over the other characters' goings on without judgment, involvement, or any curiosity about what happens next in their lives – because I’m really just waiting for Max. 

Max has Aspergers and James has pdd-nos, but I’m not picky. 

By the end of an episode, the autistic issue of the moment is often tied up in a little bow.  But I’m not complaining.

In last week's show , Max’s mother, Christina, is 8 months pregnant,  her husband is out of work, her daughter’s boyfriend was arrested, she’s worried about Max starting at a mainstream school – and she’s looking pretty good.  I’ll bet she even has nice arms under those sleeves.  But I’m not rolling my eyes (well actually I am).   This is TV Land where you lose five pounds for every year you age.  So I expect that after the baby is born, Christina will be thinner than her daughter, Hattie. 

But this is prime time drama weaving high functioning autism into a modern family’s life and I’ll take what I can get – and what I’m getting I generally like.  Network television usually deals with a disability, disease, or alternative lifestyle in the form of a visiting relative or old college buddy who stays a few days, unveils his “secret,”  enlightens the family, and then goes home.  Parenthood might tie autism into a little bow at the end of a show, but the following week it is still there.  No one kissed it good bye at the airport.  

Add to that my surprise when I hear words coming out of a skinny TV mom’s mouth that I’ve actually said:
 “I’m so over that” when referring to why she wanted to keep Max at his special needs school and not deal with explaining Max to mainstream parents. 

“I’m going to have 10 autistic kids in my house” while preparing for Max’s birthday party.   
Or even their snarky comments one night about their gifted niece.

I’ve even been brought to tears watching an interaction or breakthrough that mirrored my own.  In one episode, Adam decides to extend his drive with Max because his son showed some semblance of interest in a topic that Adam liked.  It brought me back to the time James and I had our first conversation.  He was 4 and it was Thanksgiving morning.   We went out to see if we could find a pumpkin at a store.  Suddenly, James started asking questions about which store we were going to and whether it would have a pumpkin.  My son was having a conversation with me and I walked with him for over an hour because I didn’t want it to end.
My friends who have typical kids will ask me, “Do you watch Parenthood; I think about you when I watch it.”  I know they know I don’t have hair or arms like Christina, so I expect it must be the talk about “mainstreaming” or therapists coming to the home.  I’m glad they have the opportunity to see pieces of my son and my life on the television screen.

And I’m glad I get to see it.
In the early years of James’ diagnosis, I just couldn’t wrap my arms around the fact that “this” was autism.  James had eye contact, he smiled right at me, he was connected to me, he was making steady progress with therapy…  This can’t be autism.  These are delays that can be rectified with therapy.   It took longer than I’d like to admit for me to see that it’s possible we will always be so close yet so far.  This is what autism looks like.

It means that, yes, my son talks, learns, wants things, and will argue with you – just like a lot of other kids.  But he’s still different, he may not grow out of it, and I didn’t cause it by babying him or spoiling him.  It’s taken me a while to get here, so I can imagine how hard it would be for people with typical kids to get there too.  But, hey, if the skinny TV Land mom says so, it must be true.   I’ll take that.