"So, how do the experts tell you you should interact with your child in his 14-year-old body when his mind is only 7?" asked our psychiatrist yesterday morning when I took Kaeden for his appointment.
I sat there. I looked through the library of knowledge I have stored in my mind, the autism section doubling in size with each passing year. I put all those files through the fiche and tried to come up with an answer to his question. What is the best way to interact with my son? All the advice I have collected, and I didn't find the answer. There is no book stored in my library to help me accept that this is what I have been dealt in life. There is only information and tricks and ideas, but no book that is titled: How to deal with your child in a 14 year old body with a 7 year old mind.
"I don't think I have ever been posed that question," I told him. "I have never gotten an answer from an expert on the best way to handle this situation."
His eyes glanced towards the ceiling, as they tend to do when he is in thought. His pen stuck in the corner of his mouth, spinning at the tips of his fingers. His legs folded with a file folder of Kaeden and his life sitting on his lap, a fresh page of paper with just a few words written stradling the stack.
"I think," he began, "that as a parent you have to accept that though your son is living inside the body of a 14 year old, his mind is that of a seven year old."
I looked at him. I blinked several times. I glanced at my son, playing quietly on the floor next to us with some hot wheels cars. This is something I know. This is something I live every day of my life. This is something I feel in the deepest recess of my heart. And yet, hearing him say those words was mind-opening. It was as if something broke loose inside my mind and I finally really got what he was telling me. People always jokingly use the term 'man-child'. Still a child in a man's body. We refer to our teens in this way, their not yet formed ideals and values and life goals slowly taking shape, but housed in size 10 feet and size 32 jeans and a men's small t-shirt. These are boys, becoming men. Becoming men not just physically, but also mentally. Learning what it means to be a man. Learning to become a father and a husband with a career to boost their life dreams. Learning to be what a man is 'supposed' to be.
And then there is my son. A true man-child. Not the jokingly refered to form, but a true to goodness man-child housed in size 10 feet and 32 jeans and a men's sized small t-shirt...but with the mental abilities similar to those of his seven year old little brother. He hasn't reached the level of maturity of his peer counterparts. He still carries around his stuffed animals, still dresses in front of mama, still cries when he doesn't get what he wants. Though learning from the men in his life what it means to be a man, he hasn't attached that goal to himself, hasn't learned to think about the time he will be a man, a father, a husband in a career working to achieve his dreams. His capacity doesn't go beyond the here and now, what he wants to play this moment, what we'll have for dinner, how late he has to go to bed.
"You must engage the physical side of Kaeden," the psychiatrist continued. "But know that though he is housed in a man's body, he doesn't have the capability to think further than his mind will allow, which in his case, is a seven year old. He needs you to know him as his seven year old self. Though you see this man standing in front of you, you have to address him as you would the child living in his mind. He is incapable of understanding you at the level that his body is telling you he should."
I think this may be the most diffciult aspect of autism. I see a near-man standing before me. I have lived as his mother, teaching him, sharing with him, dreaming about the day he will be a man. But standing before me in not a near-man. Standing before me is the child I thought I had to give up all those years ago. Standing before me is my little boy who still wants to cuddle, still wants to sit on the floor and play with to cars, still wants to throw a tantrum if he doesn't get the cookie he so desired.
"Remind him that he is 14. Remind him what a 14-year-old would do in such a situation. Remind him what is normal for a child of his age. But, remind yourself that who he is is not who you *see* standing before you. Know that he needs you to be his mommy, the mommy of this seven year old living within."
A man-child. A fourteen year old body with a seven year old mind. Half of his life has been stripped from his abilities. Though I've known it all along, it took someone to say it to make me really *see*. My son, my little boy, always and forever.