The words I most often use to describe children who aren’t autistic are ‘typically developing.’ It feels a bit absurd to say, and oxymoron for sure. All kids develop differently, though some more than others. But I haven’t come up with a better term yet, so we’ll stick with that for now.
Pudding doesn’t pass as typically developing. She is much taller than most kids her age, so her development seems even more out of step than with other autistic children. She is a happy, hummy, whirling dervish of a child, and so far, hasn’t voiced that she notices her differences.
But her peers have. We attended the birthday party of one of her classmates this weekend. They were a lovely family who I met for the first time that day. The party was at a ziplining activity center. I was in two minds about going. I knew Pudding would struggle with the necessary motor skills, but would want to go to the party to see her friends, and eat cake (she is my girl). We arrived early and couldn’t find where to go in the chaotic mass of people on a busy weekend. The birthday girl found us, greeted Pudding, and didn’t seem to mind not receiving a response in return. She took Pudding’s hand and led us to her family.
More friends arrived, and it was time for the safety lesson before the kids took to the trees in the safety harnesses. But Pudding wasn’t interested in the safety lesson. She was dancing around and signing her own songs. I tried to demonstrate how she would have to latch on her harness clips to the appropriate places, and her hands just weren’t strong enough. I knew it wasn’t going to be safe for her.
The course is suitable for three year-olds and up, so I persevered with the efforts, and let her keep trying. Then one by one, other kids tired of waiting, and skipped ahead in front of her. First kids from her class, then younger ones. I felt that all-too familiar heartache of watching a typically-developing three year-old master something that was incredibly challenging to my girl of twice their age.
Soon Pudding got too frustrated, and started trying to take off the safety harness. I asked if she wanted to sit down, and she told me she did. Pudding has tried a zipline before, a much simpler effort with no harnesses and attachments, and I watched her fly through the air with glee on her face, so I could feel my eyes stinging that something she would love wasn’t accessible to her.
I asked a staff member to help her out of her harness, and he tried to persuade us to change our minds, convinced she was simply afraid of heights. He volunteered to go with her up in the trees, dismissive of my response that she wouldn’t let a strange man anywhere near her.
I began removing the harness myself, frustrated at being unable to communicate our needs with this man. And suddenly I realized it wasn’t just Pudding’s needs I had to accommodate, but my own. Every fibre of my body now desperate to flee this place where everyone else was having fun, and we didn’t belong.
Cubby does pass as typically developing. He is verbal, with just some minor articulation problems. His body moves almost as well as other kids his age, and certainly better than his sister, though he is two years younger. Unless you spend a long time with him, you won’t know that he tires quicker than others, that he is a little more floppy, that he can’t write his letters.
You can have a conversation with him, and he’ll pass for typically developing, until he gets on to one of his areas of expertise. You might be able to name all the planets, but he’ll tell you how many moons there are, or the name of the third man on the moon.
You might walk into his preschool to find him playing quite typically with the other kids, unless it is raining outside, or the class has moved, and he is curled up in anxiety. Then he doesn’t quite seem like the rest of his peers.
But when they are together, they are oh so typical. While we revel in being our unique selves, and aspire to nothing but the freedom to do just that; it is sometimes glorious to watch their relationship develop like almost every other sibling set we meet.
Today in the car, I gave Pudding some mints, and told her to share with her brother. And she did. She found a mint that was half the size of all the others in the bag, and served it to her brother. He whined and hit her. She hit him back. He told on her.
And I smiled. And then threatened to take back the mints if they didn’t behave themselves. I’m not perfect. I wouldn’t even say I’m typical. But as a parent, I’m always developing. I’m going to feel the crushing lows of things we can’t do, just as much as the soaring highs of what we can. This is how we develop. All of us.