When I had my first child, thirty years ago, I was still a child myself. In fact, I think I still was when I had my third child eight years later. I made mistakes along the way but I always loved being a mother. It was the most fulfilling and rewarding thing I had ever done with my life. When my children grew up and moved away, I felt empty. I felt as if I no longer had purpose in my life. So, seventeen months ago at the age of 46 and with an ailing husband and a few health issues of my own, my husband and I became foster parents to an eight-month-old boy. Because the father is a relative of mine, I knew the history and knew that our foster child would become our child. What we didn't know was that he would be diagnosed with Autism.
Despite his diagnosis, we love Matty and we adopted him on November 20, 2009. At that point, he had lived with us for 13 months. We really didn't think that raising him was going to change much in our lives. Because of my husband's illness, we had already stopped doing many of things we previously enjoyed. We actually thought that having a baby would be a fun new life for us. (We both had children from prior marriages but none together.) We even thought that having a laughing happy baby would help my husband to feel better. Give him a new and bright focus so he wouldn't dwell on his iron lung. And you know, for a while it really worked. But, Autism changes everything.
When you think you know all there is to know about Autism, you have a lot to learn. Anyone who says that he/she knows all about Autism is a liar. Autism is a mystery. It is an unpredictable series of who-knows-what. Every day is so the same yet so very very different. What the Autistic child loves one day can throw him into a total meltdown the next day. Things we take for granted; eating, washing, sleeping, become an issue.
Mealtime. Once upon a time, this was the most pleasant part of the day. Now, it's a thing we fear. If the food doesn't look right or feel right, (yes, I said feel right because he must touch and squeeze and lick every item on his plate.) he won't eat it. The few things he will eat wreak havoc in his over sensitive belly. He won't eat cereal but rocks are great. He won't eat rice but lint is wonderful! This leads to the next issue SLEEP. I remember it, I miss it, and I long for it! I think at this point I may even kill for it if I had the strength and wasn't in so much pain. But, when Matty doesn't sleep, no one sleeps.
Our days begin at 6:30 AM. We strive to keep life as structured as possible for Matty because any change is apt to drive him into himself and cause the day to run on into the wee wee hours while he tries to sort it out. For example, Last week, we had a visitor just before dinner. It was a family member that Matty has only seen a few times and she only stayed about an hour. Matty withdrew during the visit then became very cranky at bedtime. It took two full hours of walking and rocking his 35 pounds to sleep that night. That was a minor thing. Christmas week was one looooong day for us. But that’s another story. A structured day for us consists of keeping meals, snacks, naps, and playtimes at the same time every day. Except for the one hour of therapy Matty gets each week, we are alone. From early morning to after dinner it is two old people chasing this child around trying to keep him safe from himself. He is obsessed with anything dangerous; stairways, outlets, climbing onto windowsills, tables, bookcases, and lately the shelves of the entertainment center too. A simple “NO!” does not divert him. He ignores all verbal commands and seems to know that we can’t get up fast enough to stop him on his path of self-destruction.
Afternoons on good weather days, I take him outdoors where I stand over him pulling pebbles out of his mouth or stopping him from pouring sand into his ears. He does fine in his stroller, sometimes for a full ten minutes! Back indoors while I cook a meal, my husband tries to keep him entertained but all he wants is to stare at the television and throw his toys. Oh, the toys. The money we spent on toys and all he does is look at them and throw them. He is not content until every inch of the carpet is covered with toys. The scattering of toys makes it harder for us to stumble over as we rush to pull him from an outlet or from bobbing for bubbles in the potty. After dinner and a bath we begin the bedtime battles.
Matty has decided that he hates bedtime. We used to put him to bed and he would play happily there for sometimes up to an hour before falling asleep. But not anymore. For the last several weeks we lay him down and he cries. Then, he begins to scream. We begin taking turns rocking him. First in the rocking chair, that lasts about two minutes, then up and walking. We can tag-team this task for up to three hours per night. Or, he falls asleep after only an hour then wakes up later and starts the screaming routine and the tag-team task then takes up to FOUR hours.
No rest for the weary. The stress of the ordeal has caused me to tear some muscles in my arms. The pain of that rivals the pain of my fibromyalgia and the severe arthritis in my neck. I often do this rocking in tears. But I push on because my husband can only go so far (and he ALWAYS goes too far) before getting short of breath. But, it isn’t all bad. Matty is on a waiting list for day care and if we are still alive in three months, we will finally have a break! We are dangerously close to burning out now. We have no help what-so-ever and we just pray we will make it another three months and that no one will come along and push Matty back on the waiting list. We are so tired. Our marriage is struggling. Our health is deteriorating. Our hopes are fading.
You may ask, how does one love a child like this? Going along with the puzzle that Autism is, …you just do. Because of my limited me time, it took four sittings to write this all down.