Pain is a motivator. I watch Owen struggle with some of the smallest things that his two year old brother does with ease and it hurts my heart. Instinctively, I want to rush in and do it for him or speak for him but that doesn’t help him in the long run. Instead of teaching everyone around Owen how to communicate or interact with him, I need to teach Owen how to communicate and interact with others. My goal is to teach him to be as independent as possible because he won’t always have me around to speak for him. It’s one of those aha moments that sounds so obvious but took me a long time to figure out.
Owen is four years old and incredibly smart. He can watch a tv show one time, memorize most of the lines then repeat them the next time the show is on. He can look at a puzzle that’s been put together, dump it out, and put it back together quickly. Mostly by memory. He can count to 100 and is beginning to do basic math. However, he has difficulty communicating and processing one and two step directions. He is unable to tell us when he’s hungry, thirsty, cold, or has to go potty.
Some days we’ll ask him to do a particular task and he’ll respond properly. Then other days we can ask him the same thing without any response. It often looks like he’s ignoring us or being willful which is not the case. At these times his central nervous system becomes overloaded with all of the sensory input surrounding him, making it difficult for him to hear us or respond to our requests. So he either shuts down or becomes wildly manic.
Ironically, he can chatter loudly reciting TV shows or acting silly but when it comes to communicating a basic need he looks away and whispers. When I ask him to repeat himself he completely shuts down making meeting his needs very difficult.
He very much wants attention and to play with other children but he doesn’t know how to initiate interactions and appears aloof and disinterested instead. When he doesn’t get the attention he wants he’ll sometimes act out by throwing toys or crashing into things. Other times he just quietly goes off on his own, into his own world, pushing his toy cars back and forth.
For years I would stand in the background with family and friends chirping, “Owen said hi.” “Owen’s trying to tell you something.” “Owen was very excited to come here today.” They’ll turn their attention to Owen who had previously been looking at them and whispering something under his breath. The moment he senses their attention on him he shuts down and acts completely disinterested. He won’t look at them, repeat what he said or show any interest in them at all. Unsure what to do they turn their attention back to Eli who is all too willing to have the spotlight on him again. I watch Owen watching Eli easily interacting with others while he plays by himself. Each time this happens my heart breaks a little.
Every evening, before my husband gets home from work, we have the same routine. The boys clean up their toys and wash their hands before dinner while I feed the animals and get dinner ready. This sounds much more organized than it really is. Usually the kids are feeding the dogs from their plates, I’m tripping over toys and animals while making dinner and the TV is playing loudly while the children stand with dirty hands, mesmerized and quiet for once. Interestingly it’s Owen that appears the most excited waiting for his Daddy to come home. He’ll say periodically, “Daddy’s coming” and then run to the door to check. When my husband finally pulls into the driveway, I tell the boys that Daddy’s home. Owen runs to the door vibrating with excitement while Eli continues playing with his toys or watching TV. Just as my husband walks through the door Owen yells something unintelligible and runs away while Eli comes running into the room saying, “Daddy’s Home!” My husband scoops him into his arms and tells him how much he’s missed him.
Owen is in the living room, running his toy car back and forth on the arm of the couch. He has a far away look in his eyes and the rest of his expression is blank. I start my narrating, “Daddy, Owen missed you so much. He was so excited to see you today.” “Owen, tell Daddy what you did today.” “We went to the gym then went swimming.” “You had fun at swimming, didn’t you?” Sometimes he gets a little grin on his face and says “yeah,” other times he just lets me speak for him and says nothing. My husband will come in then and scoop Owen into his arms, hugging and kissing him and telling him how much he’s missed him. Owen lights up with his Daddy’s affection. It was during one of those interactions when the thought hit me, why don’t I teach Owen how to properly greet his Daddy?
So the next few weeks, when the boys were anxiously awaiting Daddy’s arrival I began teaching Owen how to greet him properly. We talked about smiling and saying, “Daddy, I missed you so much” and then giving him a hug by squeezing his arms around him. We would practice this over and over. Each time he did it right I would pick him up and squeeze him tight while telling him how happy I was to see him.
The first few times we tried it with Daddy it took a lot of prompting and awkward attempts but soon he began yelling “Daddy” excitedly when my husband would walk through the door. Eventually he began running to him and jumping into his arms. He often says, “Daddy I missed you so much” like we practiced. The best part is that my husband gets to experience a wonderful welcome home and Owen gets rewarded with communicating properly.
Much to my surprise, Owen automatically generalized what he had learned with me. One day, I was picking him up from my mother-in-law’s house. I walked in and said hello to Owen expecting the usual small smile or to be completely ignored. Initially it looked like he was going to do the latter but to my surprise he got a huge smile on his face and ran to me giving me a big hug saying, “Mommy, I missed you so much!” It brought tears to my eyes. Sometimes I don’t realize how much I’m missing something until it happens. I squeezed my little man tightly and told him how proud I was of him. It’s the smallest milestones that are often the most special.