Ben was the easiest baby born to human parents. He was docile, quiet (too quiet, really), and content to sit in one spot for hours, staring blankly at whatever parade of activity passed in front of him. He didn't roll over, as most infants eventually do, until he was six months old. He didn't crawl until he was almost one; he didn't walk for another five months after that. Did I worry? No. He was just moving at his own pace, I figured. He was meeting the developmental milestones--just not as quickly as other kids do. But he was my fourth child. He got lots of parental and sibling attention. I supposed that he just didn't see much need to change things up too quickly.
But once he got up and walked, my docile, quiet baby vanished and every waking, toddling moment was soon laced with some form of chaos: he pulled cereal boxes from the pantry to scatter millions of little oat circles across the kitchen floor; he dumped cups full of water or other accessible liquids (notably, my Diet Coke) into lakes and oceans on the carpet; he removed his poopy diapers to create fresco artwork on the walls and floor; he emptied full bottles of shampoo or dish soap onto beds or down the bathtub drain. Did I worry? No. I figured he was just an active kid. Maybe he was making up for lost time.
He was four when I sent him to preschool. He couldn't sit still, couldn't interact with other children in appropriate ways, couldn't control himself from hitting, kicking, or spitting on others, and often ran out of the classroom either into the hallway or else out the door into the parking lot when he spotted an opportunity (little jail breaker!). Did I worry? No. I figured he had ADHD, and took him to the doctor for a prescription that actually helped a lot.
I didn't worry when he started kindergarten, either, and couldn't tolerate sharing a table with other children. He never played with other kids on the playground. He often still pinched, pushed, and hit his classmates, but I figured that his meds needed some adjusting.
And then came Picture Day, which happened first thing in the morning for the kindergarten class. By 9:00 a.m., his whole class had smiled and said "cheese" for the strange guy with the rubber chicken. By 9:30, the school principal called me to say that Ben's behavior had escalated to a point where they could no longer keep him in school. I picked him up, drove him home, and finally started to worry--particularly after I began to cry and Ben punched me and said, "You're a big crybaby. You're a stupid crybaby!"
We've come a long way since Picture Day last year. With a diagnosis and a treatment plan in place, Ben's making some slow but certain progress. So when yesterday--Picture Day--rolled around again, I thought for just a moment about sending a note to his teacher to warn her that Ben might have a tough day. And then I changed my mind. It seemed like he was having a good morning, so I decided not to worry about it after all. Still, I wasn't entirely surprised when the principal called me at lunch time to report that Ben was sitting there in his office with him, after spending lunch spitting on, kicking, and pushing other children.
I thought a lot last night about what Picture Day means to an autistic child, and realized that it must almost feel like a horrid personal violation to him. Ben doesn't make eye contact with anyone--not even me, and I'm his closest connection in the world. Imagine if every time you were asked to look someone in the eye, your brain began shooting off electrons in a frenzy that would rival the finale of a 4th of July fireworks show. I think that's what it's like for Ben when he's asked to make interpersonal connections. Yet on Picture Day, he's put on a stool--the center of attention--and commanded to look up, look here, smile, and say magical, grin-inducing words. His over-firing brain can't have much left by the time that ordeal is over. So of course, Picture Day is almost impossibly hard for him to survive without some level of emotional overload.
Is it worth it? Do I continue to force him through that level of over-stimulation every single year for the rest of his educational career? I love his school pictures, and I cherish the memories that each picture inspires. But what about him? I think I have to remember that on Picture Day, Ben will always need a chance to regain some kind of balance and quiet in his own mind once the photo has been taken.
The fact is, Ben needs me to worry a little more about Picture Day.