A few days ago I noticed that my three year old son needed warm weather pajamas. We constantly disprove the notion that having two children the same gender eliminates the need to buy additional clothing.
I ventured to the store in pursuit of pajamas. As I shopped my thoughts drifted to my oldest son and how much he would love the pajamas with the individual PJ Mask Characters. My oldest likes to pretend he is Catboy and my youngest son likes to be Gekko. Unfortunately, these particular pajamas only came as a short sleeve shirt and short set. And my oldest son would not wear shorts.
That may sound odd to you. Why in the world would my son not wear shorts? The simple truth is that I have absolutely no clue. It is one of the many things that I do not understand as we navigate the autism spectrum.
Transitions are hard. And this year the transition from spring to summer was filled with new and unexpected challenges. My son needs pants. And his needs are very different from the needs that you and I have. His needs come from a place deep inside of him. A place he has very little control over. A place that is in complete control of him.
His need for pants is very real. For my son pants are so much more than just something he wears. Pants are security. Pants are protection. Pants are a literal shield of armor from the sensory elements of our world.
At the mention of shorts his body exudes a physical reaction: shaking, retreating, curling into a ball. He shouts and cries out in desperation. He pleads for us to understand that shorts are scary. His fear is very real. I see it with my eyes. (And I feel it in my heart.)
It does not matter to me if my son wears pants or shorts. My three year old son spends most of his time walking around our house naked or in a variety of Disney princess dresses. So there is zero judgment about what my children wear. In the lifelong parental game of “choose your battles” we were content to let this one go.
And then something happened. He started to get sick from the heat of the day. Headaches and stomachaches at the end of warm days spent in pants. Aggressive and violent behaviors as a result of over-heating.
We intervened. Not because we wanted to. We intervened because as parents it is our job to protect him; even when that means doing something hard or unpleasant.
We ran an intensive program of extinction, redirection, praise, reward and consequence with our ABA therapy team. It was not fast. It was not easy. It was not without tears. It was not void of hitting and kicking and screaming. It was hard and exhausting and emotionally draining.
But in the end, my little man wore shorts.
In the evening the day after he first wore shorts I selected pajamas for both boys and began dressing them for bed. My oldest son saw the PJ Mask pajamas and his face lit up with a huge smile. Crap.
I explained to him that these 3T pajamas were for his brother. And, now that he wore shorts I would buy him some too. We made a plan. (We make a lot of plans.) Monday after a twelve hour day at work I returned to the store. I went to the “little little boy” section and located the pajamas. I scrolled through 2T, 3T, 4T. Crap.
I raced over to the “big little boy” section. Crap!!!!!
In that moment I wanted to sit down on the floor in the middle of the store and sob.
The Catboy pajamas represented so much more than a “gift” for my son. They were a reward. A symbol of an obstacle overcome. A celebration of forward movement. The culmination of something that was physically and emotionally trying for all of us.
These silly Catboy pajamas were a proverbial “light” in the middle of the tunnel; because on our journey, the tunnel has no end.
I chose different 6T pajamas. Pajamas that he would surely love. But no amount of love would replace the Catboy pajamas and all that they represented. Not now. Not after 24 hours of expectation and anticipation. Not while he stood watch waiting for me to return home with his new Catboy pajamas.
I walked back to the “little little boy” section. I paused for a moment. Then I reached to the back for a pair of 4T Catboy pajamas.
Yes, they would be way too small. Yes, his boxer brief underwear would hang out the bottom of the shorts. Yes, the shirt would reveal two inches of his belly. Yes, it was completely ridiculous to buy 4T pajamas for a child wearing size 6T. But going home without those pajamas was just not an option. At least not an option I was willing to consider.
You see, a lot of things in our day to day life are hard. We fight like hell to survive. The symptoms of my son’s autism are very real. He is rigid. His speech is delayed. He struggles to communicate his needs to us. His body is very wiggly. He does not understand physical or emotional boundaries. He runs. He kicks. He throws. He hits.
Autism is hard every single day for a million reasons that we cannot control. But there in that moment, control was mine for the taking.
I knew my son could care less about two inches of his belly showing. And, I knew that going home without the pajamas would cause a chain reaction. It would bring the hardest pieces of my son’s autism to the surface.
So I bought pajamas that were two sizes too small. And I did it with a smile on my face.
I walked in the door and my son instantly narrowed his eyes on me and asked “what did you buy?” It was a quiz. I was being tested. And I am so very happy to say…I passed!
Life is hard and messy and way more complicated than it needs to be. It is ok to take the easy win sometimes. Even if it is not perfect.