Last Saturday morning, there was a brief period during which peace and quiet reigned. I mention this because it is such a rare occurrence. Peace and quiet, much like Halley’s Comet or a solar eclipse, only happens in my house once every eighty years or so. George, who is seven and has autism, was constructing a Lego tower that could rival Toronto’s CN Tower in height. James, who is almost five, had enlisted me to play with him and two hundred of his favourite cars. We were all content. The calm before the storm.
All of a sudden, for reasons unknown, all hell broke loose. George let out an ear-piercing scream of rage, ferociously threw his Lego against the wall and fled from the room. I took off after him, knowing that I had to get to him before he started smashing his head on the hardwood floor in the hall. I reached him just in time and dragged him kicking and screaming back to the carpeted area. With an expertise born of prior experience, I wrestled him into a full-length position on the floor, and then used my body weight to immobilize him. He was screaming in what sounded like anger, but was probably something closer to despair or frustration.
I lay there on the floor with him for maybe an hour, maybe more. I softly spoke reassurances into his ear – I love you. It’s OK. You’re safe. You’re a good boy. I love you. – hoping and trusting that my words were cutting through his frustration and his screams. Whenever I looked into his eyes, I saw utter despair. The kind of despair that twists your heart and makes you wish for the ability to take all of your child’s pain onto your own shoulders.
After a time, the screams started to peter out, and George’s struggling slowed down and then stopped. Slowly, slowly, I loosened my grasp on him, and he went limp with exhaustion. I picked him up – this tall, lanky kid with arms and legs everywhere – and he wrapped his arms tiredly around my neck as I carried him to the couch, laid him down and covered him with a blanket.
“Does Mommy love you?” I asked.
“Yes,” he whispered.
“Do you love Mommy?”
I requested and received a kiss on my cheek, and then my son, who had exhausted himself with this massive explosion of energy, drifted off to sleep. And that’s when I heard a little voice behind me, saying, “Mommy, can we play cars again now?”
I turned around and there was James, looking at me with his arms full of cars and his face full of anticipation and hopefulness. I fought back the tears threatening to erupt at any second, and gently guided James by the shoulders back to the playroom, where we resumed our game. About five minutes later, James climbed into my lap and softly said, “Don’t worry, Mommy. I will take care of George.”
That, of course, finished me off. I couldn’t fight the tears anymore, and they rolled freely down my face as I contemplated the fact that this child, who is not even five, has to deal with parental attention being wrenched away from him. And yet, he can show this amazing composure and compassion. I have a feeling that James wanted to comfort and be comforted at the same time. We sat there together for a long time, not saying anything, just enjoying a sense of togetherness and security.
I spend a lot of time worrying about James. It cannot be easy being the sibling of a child with autism. There are times when my complete focus has been on George, while James retreats unnoticed into the background. It seems patently unfair. James is barely more than a baby. He should not have to deal alone with the bewilderment of these outbursts. He rarely shows distress when this is going on, and I worry that he is internalizing feelings of sadness, confusion and despair.
When my fiance and I are both home, it’s easier. There are enough grown-ups to go around to attend to the needs of both of the children. But when one of us is home alone with the boys, it’s hard. We have to choose which child to take care of, and obviously, we have to pick the one who is in danger of physically hurting himself. We fear that this is at the expense of our other child’s mental well-being.
Not that we ignore James, not by any means. Both, my fiance and I, endeavour to have “James time”, where he is the centre of attention, where we do James-centric things. We tell him all the time how much we love him, and he knows that he can come to us when he feels sad or afraid, at any time of the day or night. If he needs us at three in the morning, we’re there. We encourage him to talk to us about what he thinks and how he feels. We try to let him know how much we value him.
But are we doing enough? Is my concern justified or do I just need to chill out and trust my instincts? How do other parents in a similar position balance the needs of their special needs children to the needs of their typically developing children?
This is an original World Moms Blog post by Kirsten Jessiman in Toronto, Canada. Kirsten is WMB’s “1/2 marathon” mother who champions raising money for autism. You can also find her on her site, Running for Autism.
Photo credit to http://www.flickr.com/photos/lorenkerns/4230688948/. This photo has a creative commons attribution license.