Our Aussie, a beautiful black Labrador, officially entered into our lives this week. She brought with her a beloved, familiar toy: a stuffed rainbow llama. Her eyes, a gentle brown, communicate her love for my son (and my daughter, of course) and her undeniable attention in everything he does. My home, a place where the floors are dusted with gluten-free flour, scattered legos can be found in all nooks, and rumbles and tumbles and jumps and leaps are in full-drive at all times in the day. My home was already a place that required any visiting person to have great stamina (or love) for me and my kids. And, now, my home, is filled with even more joy: dribbles of water on the hardwood floors, black hairs on my pillow case, and dog toys chewed down to the remaining eyeball. And yet, among all of this crazy in my home, you will also feel the happiness that has suddenly blown into our lives.
I knew this choice was right the minute we walked into our condo complex and Aussie and my son darted down the long hallway. My son eagerly said, “Mom, Aussie, now we can play ball! Let’s go!”
My son had patiently waited for that moment when he could throw his ball with his dog. He had even practiced prior to Aussie’s arrival, making sure he knew how to insert the ball correctly into the mini-ball launcher. He was precise in his arm swing, making sure that the ball left the launcher at the right time.
So, he threw the ball long, hitting the wall at the other end of the hallway. His dog looked at the ball and then at him. She waggled her butt and then looked at the ball, again. “Go get it, ” he squealed, jumping up and down with his arms flapping at his side. “Come on, Aussie, go fetch the ball!” he said. After several more failed fetches, my son realized that Aussie would rather have a belly rub as evidenced in her wiggly body on the floor. And so, the giggles ensued and then the big, belly laughs.
And the giggles and laugher continued as my son and Aussie raced through the house – leaping over chairs and sliding on the hardwood floors. There played tug-o-war for long stretches of time, neither wearing out because the other had to win. There were sweet names being said to Aussie such as “my girl,” and “waggle-butt.” These moments replaced the often solitary moments of rocking back-and-forth, not knowing what to do next, or tap-tap-tapping his leg on a chair. And, of course, there were more moments when my son took Aussie into our long hallway in our condo complex, throwing the ball as far as he could, and inevitably ended up rubbing her belly and giggling.
And then the came that truly filled-up my son with his happy: Aussie chased after a ball.
It was after daily work in the hallway, throwing the ball for sometimes 30 minutes, saying ” Go get it girl!” When that didn’t work, he would throw the ball and then give Aussie a treat, whereupon she would sit and gaze-up at my son, waiting for another treat. My son also threw the ball and then ran himself to go get the ball. He crawled on his knees and hands, in dog posture as he calls it, and dog-ran to get the ball. His Aussie followed him, waggling her butt the entire time. This was the cream in the Italian soda: running together. Aussie figured out that getting a ball meant running after it (like my son did) and then picking it up (like my son also did with his own teeth) and then bringing it all the way back to the other end of the hallway. Once Aussie watched my son do so, she began to play fetch. Thus, the traditional boy-and-his dog game began.
One of the beautiful things about being on the autism spectrum, is the untethered willingness to master something. Whether my son understands it or not, his dedicated determination to teach his dog how to fetch a ball is connected to his beautiful abilities. My son is a puzzle solver and a curious investigator. If something doesn’t make sense the first time, then he looks at it again, and again, and again, … until he masters it. The same is true in this scenario. Except for one thing: he mastered the feeling of happy. The very crutch (his repetition and intense focus) that often hinders him from interacting socially or from having fun with others, is what opened up the doors of happy.
And so, when you observe someone focusing too much (or intently) on a problem or can’t stop thinking about something, I urge you to remember my son and Aussie. Remember that a beautiful gift given to many on the autism spectrum is tenacity to solve the problem or master the puzzle. This is an ability to be celebrated.