My oldest son, L, is on the Autism Spectrum and at the time this picture was taken we were deep into many various therapies and early interventions. L was attending kindergarten full time in a mainstream classroom. Twice a week speech therapy appointments, behavior therapy, physical therapy and then on Saturdays he attended a developmental clinic for a few hours where he worked one-on-one with a college student who was specializing in Special Education to work on therapies that coincided with his appointments that week. During all of those appointments that I took L to, Z was with me. A little three-year-old sitting in waiting rooms with his little bag of toys and books. Always being told to whisper and not to run around and "just five more minutes sweetie".
The guilt of it all at times overwhelmed me. My heart hurt for L to have to do the hard work of learning how to function in our world and at the same time, my heart was continually breaking for Z for having to live under the umbrella of Autism and the limitations that it created in our lives. At some point, I looked through the scrapbooks that I made for the boys that documented every moment of their childhood and I realized that I didn't have a picture of Z with Santa Clause! It wasn't the joke of the second child who doesn't get as many pictures as the first child. I was always snapping pictures and scrapbooking moments of the boys.
Truth be told it was because L wasn't able to go to large places where there would be a lot of people, places like malls. Standing in line to see Santa was impossible for L, he would have a total breakdown and I knew this about him so I would avoid going to places where there would be large amounts of people and noise. Which meant that these major milestones in most children's lives, like sitting on Santa's lap, Z has missed them because of his brother. I was determined to change all of that! I researched the mall that had the best looking Santa in our area and I made a date with my little three-year-old guy to see him. We went out to eat beforehand in a crowded, busy, noisy restaurant and then to the mall. As we stood in the long line, Z was so excited, he was dancing and singing a made up song about "me and mommy see Santa....me and mommy....". I can still hear his sweet little sing-song voice in my head.
The line continued to move at a slugs pace but that didn't hinder Z's enthusiasm, he's talked to the kids in front of him and behind him. As he looked ahead to see how much closer we were to Santa each time we took a few more steps forward, he would smile up at me. My heart was bursting! I was so happy that we were doing this together, just me and him. That I was able to give him, even if it's just for an afternoon, what feels like a "normal childhood moment" that wasn't shaded by having a brother on the Autism Spectrum.
Eventually, we are at the head of the line and watching the family in front of us take their picture, these kids are seasoned experts who know exactly what to do and the entire family has matching sweaters on. Z is literally bouncing in place, he is so excited! Now it's our turn and he shyly shakes the hand that Santa holds out to greet him with and whispers his name after Santa asks him. And like all Santa's he asks the essential question, "What would you like Santa to bring you for Christmas?" I am surprised that rather than telling Santa everything he wants, instead, he tells Santa the items that L would like. I didn't realize in the actual moment how telling that was of who Z is as a person, in his core. Z suddenly looks over his shoulder and then around us, as if he just realized "where's L?, Mommy...where's L?"
"Z, sweetie it's your special picture with Santa.", I tell him as I pick him up and place him on Santa's lap. I stepped to the side as instructed by the Santa's helper and CLICK.
That's the moment.
The scream and immediate tears, the arms outstretched as he cries out his brother's name realizing that he isn't with us nor is he going to do this with him.
I wish I could say that I learned my lesson from this experience, that I could accept that Z was totally fine with the existence that he had even if it was under the Autism umbrella. No, I didn't learn that lesson with Santa, it took a few more times for me to realize that I was projecting my own interpretation of what life should look like based on my own experiences of childhood. And rather than trying to conform my children to what my normal was...I had to embrace and accept that how we were living was pretty fine for everyone involved. That Z was not slighted in any way by missing out on Santa pictures or trips to Disney world. The Autism umbrella was his safe place, this is what his soul knows and for him it's magnificent. This is our "normal".
|These are not the three year olds mentioned in the article, but the picture is simply priceless.|
Three is pretty young to understand the concepts of yoga so I teach the class in a way that they can understand. We play games and sing a song during the Sun Salutation. For Savasana (corpse pose) at the end of our class, the part where you lay down with your eyes closed. I tell them to pretend they are a statue. "You can't move, you can't talk, all you can do is listen and breathe.", I say quietly as they get their final squirms out before becoming a statue.
As they all lay there so still with their little hands folded on their bellies, even the child who seemed to be jumping up and down or squirming in every pose that we did that day. "What can you hear that you normally don't hear?", I whisper.
I tell them to notice their belly going up and down every time they breathe. "It's called belly breathing and you can do this at night time when you don't feel sleepy or when you feel sad or mad." The room is so quiet and still that anyone walking by would be shocked to know that there are 12- three year olds mediating in the room. I instruct them to come to a seated position, quietly, and then we go around the room and share all the things that we heard. "The air conditioning.", "The kids outside playing.", "The lights.", "The breath coming in and out of my nose. I think I have a booger!" They get it and they love that suddenly a whole new world has been opened up to them that they never realized existed, the world that exists in quiet.
To keep the kids interested I call it being a "Secret Spy", just saying those two words together and you can see their eyes light up. I asked them, "Raise your hand if you have a hard time going to sleep." Almost the entire group raises their hand and shakes their head yes.
"So tonight I want you to try being a Secret Spy after your parents put you to bed."
The kids are hanging on my every word, to them they now have this super important mission and these three year olds are taking it pretty seriously.
"Listen to the sounds that the house makes just like we did today. And if you keep listening the sounds will magically put you to sleep."
They nod and we place our hands at prayer position in the center of our chest and bow to each other saying "Namaste" as we do at the end of every class.
There are some days when teaching this particular class of three year olds feels like the best birthday party you've ever attended. All the kids are excited, happy and having a great time. And then there are days when it feels like I am trying to herd a group of kittens, one is refusing to participate and another would rather sit and pick her nose than do a downward dog. There are good days and not-so-good days.
The next day one child comes running towards me as the camp director opens the door, "I did it! I was a Super Spy!" with a huge smile and a complete look of excitement on his face.
"That's awesome. Did the sounds put you to sleep?", I ask.
"Actually..... I listened to the dryer drying clothes and I listened to my mom washing dishes. And then I heard God."
I sit. So that I can be face to face with him. I want him to know that I take this conversation seriously, I can tell by the look on his face that he's not joking and he believes this to be real. I nod my head as if to continue.
"And God said that he's inside me and hears my sadness." The little boy stops twisting his shirt around his pointer finger and looks up at me.
"Do you believe that?", he asks. I can see tears beginning to form in his eyes.
"I do. And... I believe that you are an incredible person." I smile and reach for his hand to hold.
"I'm just a three year old."
"You are so much more than that. You have a purpose. To spread kindness to everyone you meet..... and now you know that God lives in you."
There is a pause, I can tell that he's thinking this over.
"Yeah He does..... He does!", he says with a smile.
The other kids are starting to join us on the mats and saying hello to me, I look up to say hello to another child and then he wraps his little arms around my neck. He pulls away only a wee bit so that we can see each other eye to eye, I'm staring straight into his beautiful blue eyes and I assume he's going to say something profound. I wait for it.
"It's my turn to be the leader this time!", he whispers.
And just like that, in pure three year old fashion we have moved on to something new. The class begins and it's a glorious day of yoga games and songs. It's like the best birthday party you've ever attended, everyone is having fun and smiling. And I look at their smiling, happy faces and I breathe them in. God is living in each of them, in each of us. We should treat each other with the kindness that we would show to God. We should lead with empathy and compassion and our actions rooted from a place of pure love.
A year ago today we were driving two hours away to meet who we thought would be our son. We were full of hope and fear as we drove to another state to meet face to face for the first time the child that we were matched with by an adoption recruiter and social worker.
We were intending to adopt an older child from the foster care system and inquired on over 70 children. The process took a year. A year of daily, scrolling through images and reading profiles of the children in the foster care system who are intending to be adopted from various websites. We then submitted inquiries and then scheduled phone conferences with our adoption agency and the child's social worker so that they could learn more about us and for us to learn more about that particular child. It was often in these conversations that we discovered that we weren't the right family for that child whether it be because they needed to be the only child in the home because they were sexually acting out towards other children and we already have two children in our home that we didn't want to subject to that possibility. Or that they needed services that we weren't able to commit to. We believed in our hearts that an older child would really benefit from being in our family. We are loving and kind, our family thrives on routine and schedules (which is often the thing that kids in the foster care system crave in a family structure) and we had knowledge of trauma and parenting kids with special needs.
On the drive my wife and I talked about what it will be like to meet him, we were giddy with excitement. I spent more time than usual picking out my outfit that day, routinely reminding myself as I tried on several different combinations of pants and dresses, "He's 9! He won't even notice what you are wearing!". But I wanted to make a good first impression. My wife packed up a bag of balls; football, basketball and our beach frisbee to have things to play with him outside and to show him that we are an active family. Something that his social worker mentioned that he is looking for in his "forever family".
We were scared of the unknown; would he like us, would we like him? Would he get along with L and Z, our other two children? Was he kind to animals? Would he accept a family with two moms?
Fear of the unknown often keeps us from going forward. It keeps us stuck in the same place which can be quite comfortable but it is limiting our experiences and the depth of our lives. My wife and I aren't the type of people who stay stagnant, we yearn for expansion. We believe in growth; physically, mentally and spiritually. A lot has happened in this past year. This incredible little boy who we opened our hearts and home to wasn't able to accept our love and decided that he didn't want to be adopted; not by us...not by anyone. Our hearts are broken, but we are healing. We are moving forward. Step by step, day by day.... I know that it will continue to get easier to heal from this experience. But today holds sadness and I'm going to sit with that for awhile.