Autism and a Mother's Day tradition
Mother’s Day – I should confess that before I became a mother I thought it was a holiday founded on quilt trips – one that forces one to buy something to prove their love. What child – young or old – wants to be thought of as the one who forgot their mom on Mother’s Day? The guilt worked so well they decided to add another guilt ridden holiday - Father’s Day. I will also confess that when I finally became a parent I fell immediately into the trap of wanting to be the center of attention on Mother’s Day. I blame all those Hallmark commercials. . . . . .
Anyway, all of that changed after Matt’s autism set in -- I came back to reality. It’s not the expensive gifts of roses or jewelry or fancy dinners that are important . . . it’s the hugs, the smiles, and the time you get to spend with your kids. When you get right down to it, it’s really the incredibly simple things that bring the tears of joy on Mother’s Day.
When Matt was little, holidays were a confusing, stressful time. Social get-togethers were too loud and complex. As far as Matt was concerned, gifts were for getting -- not giving. It took him a long time to figure out the complexities for all the various holidays. For the longest time he just didn’t understand the social aspects of celebrating a Mother’s Day. It’s not like it’s a birthday, it’s not a holiday to share gifts like Christmas, and it has no special historical significance like July 4th or Memorial Day. It’s a hard day to explain. I wasn’t the best one to explain it either (as I still subconsciously harbored the idea of it as a guilt-holiday to spur consumerism - which conflicted with the desire to be viewed as special because I had given birth). Fortunately, my husband has never been confused about Mother’s Day (thank goodness!) He loves any reason to celebrate. For Mother’s Day my husband Tom, and sometimes my oldest son, Christopher, would add Matt’s name to a gift or card, “from the both of us” as a way to include Matt in those early years. They have always managed to make the day a special one for me. Matt, on the other hand, had no desire to participate in such an obscure holiday. He still needed to learn to both express his thoughts and blend into social situations – and anything that involved social interaction or communication took time . . . lots and lots of time. What I didn’t realize was just how much it would affect me when he figured it all out. It all started with a simple drawing.
Each year Matt watched as his siblings gave me cards, flowers, or some other token and each year he heard the phrase, “Happy Mother’s Day” repeatedly. One year, after the presenting of cards and well wishes, Matt retreated to his room. I assumed the noise and commotion had bothered him and he left to seek solitude and quiet as he had done for every holiday, but I assumed wrong. Matt soon reappeared with a sheet of paper and a smile. “Happy Mother’s Day!” he said excitedly as he handed me the paper. On it was a simple drawing of a heart – a bit lopsided. The heart was drawn and filled in hurriedly with a regular number 2 pencil and next to it were the words, “To Mama From Matt.” The paper was folded in half like a card and I opened it to find a drawing of the Powerpuff Girls (his favorite cartoon at the time) on the left side and “Happy Mother’s Day” written on the right side. The cartoon drawing was expertly drawn and crafted. Time was put into the composition of the Powerpuff Girls. I was speechless. Matt had just presented me with his first card. He was 8 years old and it hit me like a ton of bricks.
Why did it hit me so hard? It was just a handmade card . . . . or was it? To create this card Matt had to have put together social norms of the holiday (the card), a written expression of love (the heart), the correct phrase (Happy Mother’s Day), and presenting of a gift (the expertly drawn Powerpuff Girls). He had to have realized that the involvement in this celebration was important to me. To participate he had to overcome fear of noise and social interaction. Mostly, he had to overcome his fear of doing it wrong. I know many adult children that still fear a gift will not be “good enough” (when in reality the only thing the parent really wanted is to see them). It was not just a handmade card....it was a testament to his courage and his desire to be included. I felt it deep within my soul. It convinced me that autism was not static. Matt would continue to learn and grow as long as he could be brave and push himself past the fear. It was the understanding of how much courage and desire was required to present to me that card that brought the tears of joy on that Mother's Day.
That was the start of a new tradition. Every year on Mother’s Day from that day to the present I have received a drawing from Matt. This year will make drawing number 18. I have them all put away and look at each of them from time to time. Each year the picture is different but the words are basically the same; he added, "love Matt" and the date, but that is all. Each year I await the surprise -- what will he draw me this year? Sometimes it’s a picture of his favorite thing for that particular year. Sometimes it’s something he knows I like. Sometimes he wants me to give him a suggestion of what to draw, whereas other years he remains secretive right up to the unveiling. At no other time of the year am I so excited by the receiving of a gift. It’s such a simple thing – and yet so very powerful. I can't help but be deeply moved by each one. His simple gift signified such an awakening. I know he had watched and learned quietly for many years before he connected the dots. I know that when he did make the connections it took courage and a deep longing to fit in. He drew me a simple lopsided heart and wrote a simple phrase, neither of which was all that “simple” for him. With autism, even the simple things require great focus, deep thought and courage.
As a parent of an autistic child you know how hard it is for your son or daughter to start something new, learn a social interaction, or communicate an emotion effectively and you know how hard it is to wait for the day when all that watching and learning from the sidelines begins to show. I can only say that it will begin – some day soon I hope – and when it does you won’t be prepared for the enormity of it all. If you are like me, it will hit you like a ton of bricks. It will be one of the most intense and wonderful of feelings . . . and well worth the wait.
Happy Mother’s Day!