Standing in line to come back inside from the fall afternoon, Buddy felt restless waiting for his peers to line-up. It was 3:45 PM and the day of school had already filled his mind with reading group, drawing a map of South America, and processing the sounds of the lights and low hum of the fans. And in this particular moment, he saw a mound of curly hairs, streaming from a peer’s head in front of him. The curls looked soft and smooth, like his sister and mom’s hair. It was the type of hair that you could run your hands through and instantly feel a sigh of calm inside your body. It was the type of hair that Buddy often played with when his own mother read him books at night. So, Buddy reached out with his small hands, and gently rubbed a few small strands between his thumb and index finger. Ooooh, he thought to himself. I like this hair. I like how it feels.
Let’s pause here because this is the first of many signs that a child is sensory seeking. A person who is sensory seeking, for example, cannot tolerate tags inside their tee-shirts and pants. These individuals sometimes have a difficult time dressing themselves and have an oversensitive to loud sounds (and low hums). These human beings can detest being squeezed too hard, yet they find great satisfaction in the way a fabric or material or items feels in their hand.
And this was also the moment when the peer with the mound of curly hair yelled, “stop, stop!” Yet, Buddy continued to gently rub those few strands of hair between his thumb and index fingers, ignoring or not hearing or not recognizing the firm commands from the now frazzled peer in front of Buddy. And all of his classmates continued to squirm and wiggle and giggle in the (not so) straight line. And the teacher raised her hand, saying “one, two, three, eyes on me!” attempting to get all of her students’ attention. And the sun beamed down on Buddy’s face and it felt hot, hot, hot. His throat was itchy and needed water. The cars zoomed by and one of them puffed some exhaust, making Buddy think of the Ram truck that he one day wants to drive. And the sounds and the heat and wiggles and the giggles were just so intense, so Buddy continued to rub those few strands of hair between his thumb and index fingers.
That’s when it happened. All of a sudden Buddy was on the pavement with his face looking up at the boy with the mound of curly hair. He felt the sharp ping of pain when the kick jabbed him into his thigh. He wailed when the the closed-fist came pummeling to his right eye.
And then it was over. The boy with the mound of curly hair yelled, “He wouldn’t leave me alone!” and the teacher screamed, “that never makes it okay to punch someone.” The wiggles and the giggles stopped and students now circled around Buddy, reaching small hands to help up him from the hard pavement. And Buddy cried. His tears just spilled from his eyes. What happened? What did I do wrong? Why do I hurt?
Before Buddy had time to think to much, his younger sister came running from across the field where her class was still playing. She’d watched everything that happened from one of the many protective corners of her eyes. She always had an eye on her brother – even from a distance and while in a different class. Hi Buddy. It’s okay. It’s okay. I’ll take care of you. Then his sister took his hand and walked him away from the hard pavement and the hot, hot sun and to the doors leading back into school. She opened them with the help of a teacher and a friend and then walked her brother to the nurses’ office.
After the ice-pack, Buddy and Sissy returned to aftercare together. Sissy a constant protector, not allowing anyone to bother her brother or ask his questions. Sissy the sibling who took charge of situations and always, always did what was best for the other person.
I would have known something was wrong from the moment I saw my son walk out of the school doors. I could see it in his eyes. There was a fleeting sigh and then tears. He snuggled his face into my tummy and dropped his backpack to the ground. Questions began to spew from my mouth: what’s wrong? what’s going on? why are you sad? And then the teacher walked out of the front doors, walking with haste to meet me.
It wasn’t his fault. The other boy went home. I am so sorry. She shared these words with me as I signed the head-injury paperwork. And, then I stood there with my son’s face, snuggled into my tummy and his sister gently rubbing his back. I stood there because I wasn’t sure what else to do. Should I be angry? Do I ask more questions? It wasn’t his fault? Will he be safe?
The words, “It wasn’t his fault,” continued to resonate with me during our car-ride home that evening. The words sat with me as I prepared a dinner of chicken nuggets and apple slices. I continued to think about those words, “It wasn’t his fault,” as Buddy and Sissy played with our dog, Aussie. And, then I found the courage to sit with my son and share these words with him:
You are strong. You are brave. You can be anyone you want to be in this world. What happened today wasn’t okay. The boy shouldn’t have punched and kicked it.
And then I breathe deeply and exhaled completely.
Buddy, why do you think this kid hurt you? What were you doing before the punch and the kick happened?
I didn’t hear Buddy’s answer for about four days. It took him four days and our child psychologist digging into the timeline with Buddy for him to process what happened that day on the pavement in the hot, hot sun. He’d heard the words, “it wasn’t his fault,” from his teacher and didn’t forget them. He repeated those words over and over to everyone. He believed, because his teacher believed, that the punch truly wasn’t his fault.
It is here that parents can go one of two ways. The easiest way is to hide in the shadow of “it wasn’t his fault,” and pretend that my son truly did nothing wrong. This is the route where I fall into protection mode, and I defend every action and word that my son ever made because he did nothing wrong. And, one day, my son may or may not be faced with the same situation. And he will probably respond the same way he did on that hot, hot day on the pavement. Or, I can take a different path. The path where I help my son to acknowledge his role in what happened. Where I help him to see that in our society it isn’t okay to touch others that we don’t know. Where I begin to coach him in various settings and situations, bringing awareness to his own actions. And, my hope is that if there is a next time, he will find another way to soothe his sensory seeking needs.
I share this with you not for sympathy, but to empower you to have a conversation with your own children or neighbor or friend about perceptions and assumptions. I challenge you to consider the many, various roles that a person can hold in any situation and the great power there is from learning from a mistake. Because if we allow our children, especially those on the autism spectrum, to be victims in every sour situation, then we are allowing life to happen to them, rather than for the child to take the reins of their own life.