“Let me cut the tag off for you,” I said. For most people, the first task of the day might be turning off an alarm clock or walking into the bathroom to pee. For me, it’s occasionally cutting a tag out of clothing. It’s not the first time it’s happened, and it won’t be the last. Tags irritate him. Literally. Tags must feel like sandpaper when they rub against his skin.
Still in a daze, I saw Isaac set the shorts on the couch in the living room. I mentioned to him it was too cold to wear shorts. After he was on the bus, I put them back in his dresser.
A few weeks ago, a friend contacted me to ask if we would like some of her son’s clothes that he had outgrown. I was grateful to be the recipient of such generosity, but when she asked what size my boys wore, I was lost.
All of the tags have been cut out.
I told her I wasn’t really sure. At Old Navy (they don’t have tags in shirts most of the time – hurrah!), Isaac wears XL in long-sleeved t-shirts and Noah wears L, while Henry wears M. As far as jeans, Noah wears a 12 slim (with the adjustable waist band pulled quite tightly) and Henry a 10 slim, and as for Isaac, I have absolutely no idea. He doesn’t own a pair of jeans because it’s difficult for him to fasten them, and trying on clothes in a store is a complicated task. It’s also impossible at times to look around. Isaac has some pants (size large) I bought at Target. That was the best I could do to answer her question.
It felt like Christmas when my friend dropped off two bags of clothes. Most shirts fit. A few pairs of jeans will be worn when Noah gets a little taller and thicker. Isaac in particular was happy when he saw the shorts. He tried them on right away. He was pleased they fit. I was, too, because the shorts he wore last summer (yes, all with elastic waistband) were khaki, navy, or black. They could be paired up with a polo shirt and look nice. The new shorts are long athletic ones with the Nike swoosh, much more casual than anything Isaac has owned. He hit the jackpot.
For the past few months, he has been “hanging out” at the YMCA during respite time -- eating a snack, watching people, and opening doors. Sometimes he will play foosball, but lately he won’t do anything at all. Months ago he used to shoot baskets, hit the racquetball around, or walk the track. I try not to make a big deal out of it. As long as he is happy and not causing problems for anyone or himself, let him be, I say.
A few hours later when Isaac returned home, I asked how things had gone.
“It went well,” Lacey said, as she came inside. “Did you know he packed up his shorts?”
“No, we were in a hurry and I didn’t see what he packed,” I told her.
“Well, he changed into shorts, and then he went into the gym and played basketball with a group of guys,” she said.
“You played basketball, Isaac?” I asked, surprised.
Isaac didn’t respond.
“I love it when people are nice and let him play with them,” she said.
“Me, too,” I answered.
I looked at Isaac, who was grinning ear to ear as he took a bite of a fig bar.
Isaac doesn’t really play basketball. He’s a great shot but dribbling up and down the court is not his idea of a good time. If someone passes the ball to him, he might not pass it to anyone else. He might take a shot or leave the game altogether and take the ball with him. He may just laugh hysterically as other players pass, dribble, rebound, and score. When he’s interested in the game, however, he wants to be part of the group.
I bet he dug out those scissors and woke me up this morning because he hoped to play with the other guys, I thought. I bet he thought if he looked more like them – everyone wears these long athletic shorts – he could more easily join the group. Could it be?
I don’t know these guys at the YMCA who were playing on the court, but I’m grateful they included him. I imagine a group of junior high or high school students looking his way and allowing him to join. I imagine him shrieking with delight when someone shot the ball and it was nothing but net. If the students are there playing most Thursday nights, they have seen Isaac around. I’m sure Isaac had noticed them. If they’ve ever seen him shoot, they’ve likely witnessed him sinking three-pointers, even when he shoots underhanded, granny style. Although he’s not running the offense or making an assist to someone who can score, Isaac loves to play. He just does it his own way.
Last week I spoke to a group of early childhood education majors at our local university, along with two other parents, both of whom have children on the autism spectrum. I brought along the book The Reason I Jump by Naoki Higashida (the author is severely affected by autism but communicates by typing). Another parent read aloud a passage that is one of my favorites.
The introduction states, “Naoki Higashida reiterates repeatedly that . . . he values the company of other people very much. But because communication is so fraught with problems, a person with autism tends to end up alone in a corner, where people then see him or her and think, Aha, classic sign of autism, that. The conclusion is that both emotional poverty and an aversion to company are not symptoms of autism but consequences of autism.”
Hmmm, so someone with autism might be excluded because of his communication challenges? Could it be that these people want to be included and don’t know how to get involved?
Isaac likes people when they understand how to interact with him. He rarely leaves his brothers alone. He is glued to my elbow most of the time. He is his dad's shadow. When his brothers are playing and interacting with him, he radiates pure joy.
Like everyone, he likes to be alone at times. Who doesn’t? There are times when he doesn’t want to be involved, but at least we extend the invitation. Often his anxiety about a situation doesn’t allow him to participate. We ask anyway.
Can he best communicate his wants and needs to people he doesn’t know very well? Not usually. There have been many times he’s been at the YMCA, watching people play ball. Perhaps he has wanted to join them every time? Sometimes fetching a stray ball and refusing to toss it back to a player might be his way of saying, “I’ve got your attention now. Let me play, too.”
I am reminded of a flag football game a few years ago in which Noah participated. As we were loading up the van at home to head to the football field, Isaac came outside wearing a Bengals football jersey and flags, which was Noah’s old uniform from the prior year. Noah was wearing a Jets jersey. I don’t remember which team the Jets were playing, but it wasn’t the Bengals. While the game was underway and Noah was quoting stats to one of the coaches about Eric Dickerson’s 13,259 yards rushing during his 11-year career in the NFL, Isaac ran across the field and stood on the sidelines, happy to be there. I heard a few people ask, “Hey, who’s that Bengals player over there?” I was both proud of him and nervous that he would dart onto the field to intercept a pass or pull someone’s flag and run. He just stood there, shoulder to shoulder with his brother and Noah’s teammates. The coaches didn’t say a word about it. Isaac never wanted to go to the football practices. I invited him. I’m not sure Isaac wanted to play football, but that day he was dressed for the part. He was wearing the right clothes so he could belong, too. He was – at that moment – one of them.
I am grateful to the guys at the YMCA who included Isaac, who decided they were not going to play a basketball game that was too competitive, so they could include the kid who was wearing the bright orange shirt and the new-to-him athletic shorts.
I hope they understood what an impact their kindness had on my son -- and how happy we both felt when we realized he could belong, just like anyone else.
I need to grab those giant kitchen scissors and dig through Isaac’s dresser to find the other few pairs of shorts we were given. I have the feeling he will be wearing them again at the YMCA. I need to cut out the tags.