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Happy Birthday to Me

A boy with severe autism comforts his younger brother.

 

My youngest son turned six this week, and amidst his numerous celebrations (his mother’s birthday still lasts a month, he deserves the same), I’ve caught myself marveling over the fact that my last child is a third of the way “cooked”. It sounds so cliché, but it really does seem like just yesterday that he made his early debut in an ice storm, and returned home to have his big brother greet him by attempting to shove a doll’s baby bottle in his mouth.

So much for autistic kids not imitating.

He’s come so far my little one, particularly since those dark days when Zach stopped speaking, looking at us, or relating to anyone he loved in any discernible fashion. He has made particular progress in the last year of his life, learning to control his impulses (most of the time), acquiring difficult lessons like losing sucks but it happens, homework is a necessary evil, and his computer access will never be “on demand”.

He works hard, my boy, and with his posse of teachers, therapists, family members and several meticulously constructed behavior plans, most of the time he is a delight.

He’s only six, so “most of the time” is pretty good.

I was witness to how much he’d grown at his kids’ birthday party Sunday, when the streets of House of Bounce got a little rough for him, and he chose to remove himself a few times from the oh-so-typical fray. After a minute or two of sulking on the floor while his mother tried to quell her inner helicopter, he eventually returned happily to the melee, mostly of his own volition.

A year ago, in the same situation he would have spent his birthday party huddled in a corner, head down and arms akimbo, and he would have been out for the count.

Instead, on no less than three separate occasions he employed his powers of self-regulation, and at its finale declared this year’s bash as the “best party EVER”. In theory this should be the conclusion of this post, with perhaps a mention of how he actually thanked a few of his friends without prompting, and that his mother didn’t devour four pieces of cake (even though she wanted to). After all, it was his birthday, and the story should end here.

And it would, except for the fact that his big brother stole the show.

I’ve written about the boys’ relationship before in this blog, explained how they get along pretty well but generally don’t interact with each other all that much. In an attempt to remedy this my husband and I have attempted to contrive opportunities for interaction between the two, opportunities which usually didn’t end well. 

Our boys’ interests are quite different, and we’ve learned to respect that fact.

On occasion we have seen some “cross-over”, as when Justin moves over an eighth of an inch to allow Zach a visual on his DVD player, or the one time Justin wanted to play a board game with the entire family (I wanted a parade). Often the boys simply orbit one another, taking a momentary interest in each other’s path, co-existing in peace.

There are definite benefits to siblings with dissimilar interests. It’s the severe autism bonus.

So yesterday, as that “inner helicopter” whirred frantically each time my boy’s angst seemed like it could only end in irreparable meltdown, I’m not certain I fully registered what transpired right under my nose. I know on some level I noticed Justin’s arrival every time Zach got upset, but was too engaged in the drama at hand to fully acknowledge the import of his presence.

In general my eldest son’s repertoire for bouncy houses is to take a few minutes to test out the goods, then spend the rest of his time walking back and forth the length of the establishment, perhaps rocking out to the piped-in tunes. He’s never interacted with Zach at any of these establishments (believe me, we’ve tried), so we pretty much let him do his own thing.

If he’s happy, we’re all happy.

Yesterday, however, was different. This past Sunday, as I desperately summoned my “mommy tricks” so that Zach would participate in his own damn birthday party, Justin came to my aide. Each and every time that Zach sought solitude my eldest responded with the solace of his presence, not too close, but just close enough.

I know his actions offered comfort, even though Justin never said “I’m sorry, Zach”, or “let’s try something else”, or “it’s your birthday, come on!”. He never spoke a word of course, because he can’t.

But the truth is, he didn’t have to. He stayed each time Zach succumbed to the throes of despair, and left each time his little brother bounded up to try again. There was no other moment during the party in which they interacted, no point at which their separate interests overlapped. Justin saw that Zach was in pain, and simply came to help.

For once, Zach’s big brother was his champion.

Later, when his harried mother had time to process it all (and made sure she didn’t imagine it), I had to marvel in the sensitivity, the empathy so abundant in this child who communicates through an electronic device. Justin saw that his sibling was sad, and wanted to make him smile. Despite a dearth of words, he wanted Zach to know he loves him.

And for both my youngest and myself, this may be the best birthday gift ever.

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