There’s a part of me who has always believed Cindy and I should automatically know the cause of Nolan’s anger or sadness when it’s obvious something isn’t right in his world. He has Autism and is nonverbal. He’s successfully used what I think is one of the best communication apps on the market on his iPad for years, but it’s essentially useless when he’s in meltdown mode.
Those are the moments when mom and dad should be able to step in, analyze the situation, come up with a solution, and deliver a figurative haymaker to whatever is ailing our son – all in less time than it takes to change the station when Jimmie Walker’s Medicare ad is on for the fifth time in less than an hour. You have a master’s degree, hold a doctorate, or you’re a Rhodes Scholar? Please! We’re parents of a special-needs son. You’ve mastered Schrodinger’s Equation? Amateur! We get our son out the door and on the school bus on time even when the morning has been a complete dumpster fire.
I’d like to think Cindy and I have gotten pretty good at spotting, diagnosing, and solving whatever issue Nolan might face on any given day. Sudden tears and self-injurious behaviors typically are a dead giveaway that he has a headache and needs ibuprofen. A cranky demeanor and a distended belly mean gastrointestinal issues have returned and he needs an uptick in fiber. Pushing us out of his bedroom so he can have screen time for one? Hey, he is a teenager.
Lately, though, Nolan’s behaviors have escalated. The tears seem to be coming a little more easily, as have the hyperactivity and the anger. Being on the end of aggressive grabbing and the occasional head-butt has made me wonder if I should reach out to the football coach at the high school Nolan attends and ask him if he’d be willing to spare two helmets and some extra pads that we hopefully can return when the new season starts in August.
Is the change in my son’s behavior due to the extreme rollercoaster weather patterns that have taken up residence in the upper Midwest this spring? Is Nolan wearing down with the end of the school year on the horizon and his body and brain are screaming, “Just finish it already!”? Is he upset that the school year and consistent routine soon will be over and, with the exception of 10 days of summer school in July, he’ll be stuck at home with pops? Is it the hormones that wreak havoc on every teenager? All of the above? Some of the above? None of the above? I don’t know.
I don’t know.
I cringe a little every time I say those three words – even more so than when I have look Cindy in the eye and tell her, “You’re right, dear.” I pride myself on being a problem solver. It’s been 14 years since Nolan was first diagnosed with Autism, and Cindy and I would like to believe we’re prepared to deal with any situation.
What we didn’t learn ourselves, we had the aid of some amazing people who worked with Nolan when he was younger, took the time to get to know him, sometimes saw things we didn’t, and showed us solutions to problems we still use today. Nolan is surrounded by topnotch teachers and paraprofessionals at school who are quick to alert us when things go awry. We have had, and still have, the resources to help our son when he needs it. There always should be an explanation and an answer to any situation in which we find ourselves.
Except when there isn’t.
I met Nolan in the high school gymnasium last Tuesday for Adapted Sports League wiffleball practice. Per usual, I brought him a snack and a drink because a happy Nolan is a well-fed and well-hydrated Nolan. We played catch to warm up, and we joined his teammates for stretching. He started to get a little agitated, and he was fully escalated by the time the team started its next drill. I guided him toward the other end of the gym, where he proceeded to take me down to the floor with him and draw the attention of his coach, who asked if he could help in any way.
All I could tell him was that I would try to help Nolan work through whatever was bothering him – which, for several minutes, consisted of me sitting with him and talking to him as calmly as possible while he cried. And just as quickly as Nolan’s outburst had started, he calmed down, we rejoined the team during the next drill, and there were no more issues the remainder of practice. There was no explanation as to why it had happened – it just did.
I tried to help Nolan avoid any difficulties last Thursday when his team had a game at one of the rival schools in the league. I heated a can of soup and poured a glass of juice for him when we stopped home after school to change into his uniform. I brought a bag of pretzels for a snack he could eat in the car before warmups. Everything was going fine until he started getting upset during warmups. I took him to the nearest restroom so he could relieve himself, and he started sobbing and grabbing me when we exited into the lobby.
I hoped returning to the gym and rejoining the team for the pregame routine would help, but Nolan was still agitated and just wanted to cling to me as he sat on the bench. Once the game began, he sought an incredible amount of pressure and gnawed at his already-raw left hand as we stood in right field. And he was impatient with Cindy after the game when she went to pick up our dinner from a local fundraiser. Was everything due to him being tired from school and just not wanting to play that day? Did something in the gym disorient him? Again, there was no explanation as to why it had happened – it just did.
No parent likes to see his or her child out of sorts. Seeing Nolan struggle is especially painful both for Cindy and for me. We use every tool in our arsenal to try to help him feel better, and oftentimes it helps. Still, there are instances – especially lately – when nothing seems to make a bit of difference. We genuinely do not know what is wrong with our son and how we can help him, and that’s frustrating beyond words. All we can do is just hang on, try to stay calm and keep him from hurting himself, and know that whatever is wrong will pass in time.
Still, I just wish I always knew how to take away whatever is making Nolan uncomfortable. And I always will.