Ajay Rochester is a best selling author of 5 books on health and wellness and was host of The Biggest Loser Australia for 4 years. She now lives in Beverly Hills California with her son Kai, has a TV show in development and is currently working on her latest book “247 toothpicks – Living, Loving and Laughing with Aspergers!” You can follow her journey at www.chasingoprah.com
Putting the finishing touches on my son’s birthday cake I realise I have made a huge mistake. No, not misspelling his name, not miscounting the number of candles but making the wrong number of penguins to sit atop theAntarcticasnow scene I have spent the last week making. It has to be seven penguins or it just won’t be the work of love I want it to be.
There won’t be a foot stamping “I want a pony daddy” scene like Veruca Salt in Willy Wonka’s Chocolate Factory but it can mean the difference between a peaceful week leading up to the birthday picnic we have arranged or constant obsessing and begging to make the penguins total seven, more than likely winding up with him making his own out of paper and plasticine, placing it on top, unintentionally bringing the whole cake down – a little like our life in general – beautiful one day, stormy the next!
But, if “fixed”, could go so far as avoiding or at least minimising the inevitable anxiousness and almost guaranteed teary meltdown we always experience moments before any social occasion out of the normal weekly routine not excluding birthdays. It’s like my son has permanent stage fright except that in the words of the late great Shakespeare, “…all the world’s a stage…”
And before the high and mighty perfect parents with perfect children (aka the deluded ones among us) tut tut and say it is all about having discipline and being well behaved I must explain that my son has Asperger’s Syndrome – a high functioning form of autism .
Every kid is different, every day is different, every age changes the way in which it manifests, diet and nutrition can make all the difference one day and do nothing another. There is no “cure”, no antidote, not enough experts, differing opinions, too many sceptics, too much politics, not enough support, way too much ignorance and far too much discrimination from those who don’t get it. And yet if I was given the opportunity to “send him back” and make him “better” I wouldn’t. He is my blessing, my joy, my challenge, more meaningful than any troubles I might ever have, much more important than anything that rises up in my own ego, more precious than any metal I own and exactly as he is meant to be – perfect in his imperfections.
He’s not retarded or slow or dumb, despite having been called all that and more from kids and stupid parents alike (lucky they haven’t seen me reply with my fists!! GRR). He just sees the world differently a little like having blinkers that enable him to only see the world his way.
He loves penguins (thus the penguin cake) because they flap their wings like he flaps his hands uncontrollably when he gets stressed – the official term is stimming but we call it “Pengy hands” in an attempt to embrace all that he is with a healthy dose of humor. If you can’t beat it then have a bloody good laugh about it as often as you can cause when the tough times come there can be some very dark days. We like to BE the light at the end of the tunnel rather than wait for it.
At various times he has sucked his fingers, sucked his hair, sucked his clothes, sucked pens, hated washing his hands, washed his hands obsessively, been water phobic, food phobic and is currently germ-a-phobic. He can’t stand loud noise or bright light, could not touch paper for about a year (that was a tough year at school) and for a year and a half could not touch clothing for two hours after bathing and as such I had to lie him on the floor like a baby needing a new diaper as I slid pants onto my eight year old son, crying inside for the pain, desperation and humiliation I saw on his face. But with a tickle of the tummy and a joke about him always being my baby we turned it into an intimate moment, a few seconds to tell him I love him taking the focus away from what was really going on.
These phases come and go but the list goes on. We had the lumpy sock syndrome for a few years, with Kai frozen in his inability to get his shoes on his feet and get out the door to school crawling under the bed, smashing his head with his foot calling himself stupid and retarded and wishing he could die because in the midst of his disorder he knows it is not “normal” to feel these things.
Knowing him as well as I do, I know (but can’t ever really KNOW!!) the tsunami of fear rising up inside of him every time we do something out of the ordinary including having a birthday party – something every kid talks about year round! Not knowing what the next part of his day will smell or sound like, not knowing how the people will be, what it will look like, what will happen, whether or not he knows their names, how long it will go for, what he is expected to do and what might happen if something goes wrong if he can get there at all…it’s like putting a French speaking professor of science in a room full of Japanese history students and expecting him to teach the class and have the students tested at the end. Most kids would be peeing their pants with excitement whereas my boy wets the bed with fear, still at the age of eleven.
And so, with that old adage of “you have to pick your battles” as a parent of a kid with Aspergers you take that to a whole new level. You give them as much security as you can, as much familiarity as is humanly possible, including making seven penguins on his birthday cake because inside he will be happy all day knowing that that one thing is perfect perfect perfect perfect perfect perfect perfect and therefore gives him the solid foundation he needs to deal with all the other unknown frightening overwhelming factors of that day.
That way when we blow the candles out on the cake we can say, “Happy Birthday!” and mean it!
“In Their Own Words” is a series within the Autism Speaks blog which shares the voices of people who have autism, as well as their loved ones. If you have a story you wish to share about your personal experience with autism, please send it to firstname.lastname@example.org. Autism Speaks reserves the right to edit contributions for space, style and content. Because of the volume of submissions, not all can be published on the site.