The other day I ran into an old acquaintance. We met when our kids were in a parent-toddler music class together. The last time we had seen each other was when our children were in preschool. They were adorable toddlers, mispronouncing words like “wuv” instead of “love” or “peas” when asked to use their manners. Potty training was still a thing for them – and so were naps.
Those toddler and preschool years were exhilarating and exhausting. The days were long, but we knew our children wouldn’t be toddlers forever. At that time, our little ones were developing into people with their own personalities and senses of humor. And while they were no longer babies, their newfound independence – coupled with their immature brains – meant they still needed a lot of supervision, even more than when they were babies.
Toddlers are notorious troublemakers. One of my favorite kids’ books, “David Gets in Trouble,” by David Shannon, beautifully illustrates the sometimes innocent mischievousness of a child. David doesn’t mean to cause trouble and when he does, it’s not his fault. It was either “an accident,” he “forgot,” he “couldn’t help it,” or “it slipped.” David wasn’t a bad kid. He was a typical preschooler.
Evan and his former music class buddy are now 11. They are eight months away from middle school, the perfect age for sleep-away camps and arguably old enough to say home alone for a short period of time. I think I had my first babysitting job at 12.
My son is two years away from becoming a teenager, but in many ways autism makes him a perpetual toddler. He is prone to meltdowns because the world can be a confusing place for him. He does better with routines because he likes to know what’s coming. Most of the time he cannot see things from someone else’s point of view. And, probably the most concerning of all, Evan does not always think when it comes to safety. He can correctly answer questions about making the right choices but when it comes down to it, his actions don’t match his words.
Me: Evan, do you run into the street to get your ball?
Me: What do you do instead?
Evan: Ask an adult if it’s ok to cross and then look for cars.
Me: Next question, what do we write on?
Me: Anything else?
Yet, in reality, his impulsivity almost always wins. A few years ago, he had to get an X-ray to determine if he had swallowed a coin. While his younger sister was feeding her doll, Evan decided to help out. Apparently coins were on the menu. We began to wonder whether Evan had fed these not just to the doll but himself, and his answers were always vague when we asked if he had. The only way to get a definitive answer was an X-ray.
Just a few months ago Evan took a pen to the off-white paint of our finished basement wall and wrote:
Yes, this is a great house rule – although not applicable since we are a non-smoking family – and yes, this 11-year-old boy knows better than to write on the walls. He knows he could have found a piece of paper and some tape and displayed his rule in a non-permanent way. At least when he decided to turn the basement into an art gallery by hanging dozens of his drawing and paintings, he remembered to use paper and tape. As to why he wrote directly on the wall… he says he doesn’t know.
When the toilet wouldn’t flush two weeks ago, the handyman took it apart and discovered two Matchbox cars hidden in the plumbing. “I didn’t do it,” Evan said.
We jokingly – but seriously – wish there was an autism insurance to cover the costs of everything that our son has destroyed over the years.
While my friends have put away the child locks and baby gates and let their guard down, vigilance is always high in our family. Evan’s siblings are used to hiding their stuff for fear of it getting lost or, more commonly, destroyed. They keep their toothbrushes in their rooms but when they forget, we have a stash of fresh ones because their brother likes to try all the toothbrushes in the bathroom. He knows it’s wrong. There are consequences for his actions but for some reason (aka autism), he simply can’t help it.
All this is exhausting. I am tired of being vigilant. Tired of always thinking ahead and anticipating what destruction may ensure or, even worse, what harm Evan could potentially inflict upon himself. Many times, I do let my guard down. I trust or want to believe that his 11 year-old brain will function in a somewhat age appropriate way. And, to his credit, much of the time it does. But, I never know when those times will come. And when he doesn’t act in a way that an 11 year old should, I wonder if the toddler years will ever end.