Just a few weeks ago our life was made more complicated. In addition to the challenges that autism already presents, Noah’s pediatrician gently let us know that he was at risk for diabetes. This meant a couple of things were going to need to change – more exercise and better diet. We loathe change.
So we’ve been making small changes. We taught Noah how to ride a bike. (Which is fodder for an entire separate blog post.) He now has a myfitnesspal account, as well as a fitbit, to help him monitor his calorie intake and activity. The visual component of both sites really helped him understand our goals. We are going to the gym and hitting the treadmill every day. As it turns out, I found grace there today.
Teaching Noah how to operate the treadmill wasn’t the most difficult thing I’ve ever taught him how to do. He took to it pretty well. He likes gadgets and electronics, so it was instantly easy for him to catch on to the general operation of the device. But there are “side-effects” to Noah’s efficiency.
For instance, the faster he walks the louder he vocalizes. Typically this comes out as an “oooouuuuuuu” sound. This is accompanied by either hand wringing or flapping rapidly to match his pace. As you might imagine, we have encountered stares and chuckles from the other patrons of our local rec center.
I am long accustomed to this kind of thing. Most of the time, unless we are REALLY disrupting others, I quietly cue Noah to be conscious of his behaviors and then let them go. Because the truth of the matter is, he can’t help it. Noah cannot be “un-autistic” for even one moment. And while he is processing a new skill, it is completely unfair to ask him to monitor himself even more than he usually does for the comfort of the people around us. I figured, “We paid our dues like everyone else here. We are fighting for his health here. If he has got to flap, then he can flap and ‘ooooooouuuuu’ all he needs to. I refuse to be ashamed.”
Today, I took my place directly behind him, as usual, on an elliptical trainer. I can monitor his movements there, as well as the behaviors of the other patrons of the gym. He was doing his thing, warming up at about 3.0 and then speeding up to a slow jog when the vocalizations started. It was fairly crowded this morning and I immediately saw people begin to stare.
And then, we were the recipients of amazing grace.
One older gentleman was watching a little closer than the rest. I noticed him get up from his position on the exercise bike and begin talking to the people around him. He was smiling and gently nodding in Noah’s direction. Each person he talked to smiled in return and nodded their heads. After he had talked to every person in the exercise room, he made his way in my direction. Taking my ear buds out, I readied myself to give our standard Autism 101 explanation.
With a smile he approached the elliptical trainer I was killing myself upon and said, “I’ve noticed your boy.” Before I could launch into my 3-minute spiel, he continued
He seems like a good boy. I could hear him making some sounds and turning his wrists about. It made me smile because I’ve got a seventeen-year-old grandson just like him. Autism has been a gift for our family. But I know it’s hard too. I hope you don’t mind that I took the liberty of letting everyone here know what a good job he was doing despite his limitations.
He went on to tell me that he understood how exhausting it was to be a caregiver. He explained that he had just recently lost his wife of 52 years to Alzheimer’s and that he could sympathize with constantly feeling the burden of explaining behaviors that seemed odd to the world. When I shared about Noah’s health concerns and why we are making such an effort to be at the gym, he told me that I was an “outstanding mother.” Then he asked permission to talk to Noah. When he did, he clipped the emergency strap to Noah’s shirt and patted him on the hand with a smile.
It has been over 10 years since our diagnosis and I’ve never had someone intervene on our behalf like this. It’s only been a few hours and I’m beginning to wonder if he was just an angel or apparition caused by elliptical-trainer-exhaustion. But it is possible that he was just being kind and extending grace where he saw need. Operating out of a small amount of knowledge about autism and his own experience as a caregiver, he opened his heart to dispense a few kind words on behalf of Noah and I. It was a small thing – but not to us.
And this tired Mom, who doesn’t have nearly all of the answers that she needs, will be eternally grateful.