Today was the last day of school for the big girls. I drove them both to school today, instead of just Phaedra. I wanted to say goodbye to Bella’s teachers and therapists. Her classroom is moving to a new building next year, and while the parapro that she loves will stay with the kids, her teacher is retiring.
“Now Bella, before you get on the bus to go home, make sure you give Ms. Barb and Ms. Beth an extra big hug, because it’s the last day of school.”
Nothing. Still walking, holding my hand, but no acknowledgement.
“Today is the last day you will come to Clifford School. Next year, you will go to a new school. Ms. Beth will be there, but not Ms. Barb. Today is Ms. Barb’s last day. So, give her a big hug before you leave.”
Still nothing. Then —
“Uh, Mom, the busses haven’t come yet.”
This is life with an autistic child. You know change is hard, and so you try to prepare them. You break things down into simple, black & white terms. Then they either react in an extreme way, or not at all. The “not at all” reaction means either a) they weren’t listening because they were too busy thinking about the TV show/video game/YouTube video they’re currently obsessed with; b) they heard you, but just don’t care about what you told them; or c)they heard you and they’re processing what you said. It might make sense, it might not make sense, but nevertheless, they’re thinking about it. Then they mentally set it aside until later, when they can pick it back up and fiddle with it some more, like a Rubik’s cube that they just can’t put away until it’s solved.
In the classroom, we follow the routine — hang up backpacks, put away folders, start playing. I chat with her teachers, and annoy Bella by insisting she take pictures with her teachers when all she wants to do is play. Playing is difficult today, since half the classroom is packed up in anticipation of all the changes the end of this school year is bringing — new teacher, new classroom, new building. When Bella’s teacher notices her trying to free a hand puppet from the box she’s been stuffed into, she says, “Oh, Bella! I have something for you! I put Yomiko aside for you to take home!” She walks across the room and picks up a stuffed cat. “She loves this cat,” she tells me, “plays with her every day. I was packing things up yesterday and thought she might like to take it home.” She turns and looks at Bella. “Bella, who is this?”
She smiles. “Yomiko!” She grabs the cat and happily starts tucking her into the doll bed in the housekeeping corner. Her teacher smiles too. “She asked me once what the tag on the cat’s collar says, and I told her it says, ‘Yomiko’. It’s the name of the company, I think, but the name stuck.”
As we walk back to the front of the room, her teacher adds, “You know, last year, I had an autistic student in my class who was nonverbal because her anxiety was so extreme. Her mother sent in the cat for her to carry around with her at school, to help her feel more secure. By the end of the school year, she didn’t need it anymore. Her mother told me to just hang on to it for the other kids to play with. So when I was sorting through things yesterday, I couldn’t help but think how appropriate it was for Bella to keep it.”
It’s bedtime. After an uncharacteristically calm run through the gauntlet of going potty and brushing teeth, Phaedra, Bella and I stood in the bathroom doorway chatting about this and that. Yomiko lay at Bella’s feet, ready to accompany her to bed.
“I’m going to a new school next year, you guys.”
“Yes, you are, Bella!” I said. “Tell us about it.”
“Um… Ms. Barb and Ms. Beth are going to meet me there…”
Phaedra corrected her. “No, not Ms. Barb. She retired.“
“That’s true, Bella. Ms. Beth will meet you there, but not Ms. Barb.”
Bella looked confused. “No, Ms. Barb said she and Ms. Beth would meet me there…”
Oh no. She hadn’t understood after all. Oh no no no no no no.
“No, baby. Ms. Barb is all done teaching. Remember? I said…”
Her eyes started filling with tears, her face crumpling in front of us. “But… but… Ms. Barb said she would meet me there. She said…“
She didn’t. Bella misunderstood. And now here’s the other shit thing about being a parent of an autistic child: no matter how black & white you think you explained something, you didn’t. You didn’t crack the code — you failed to string together the correct words that will help their brain understand what you mean. You used American slang and colloquial phrases to explain something to someone who’s just learning English, but because those phrases and sayings are so ingrained in your brain, you didn’t realize you told that tourist something that made absolutely no sense to them whatsoever. You find this out around 9:56pm when your daughter starts sobbing uncontrollably and demanding that you call her preschool teacher and get her over to your house immediately because she wants to give her a hug. You will start to cry because you see the sincere, unfiltered heartbreak on her face and in here eyes and then cry more when you realize you can’t do anything about her hurt. You can’t even hug her because she’s far too emotional to deal with your hugs and your feels at the moment.
I tucked in the other two girls, and came back to Bella. She sat on the floor just outside the bathroom. I sat down next to her, giving her a test side-hug to see if she was ready for comforting yet. “You okay, Bell?”
She looked at me with sad eyes. “She said she would meet me there.”
“I’m so sorry Bell. I really am.” I hugged her in the dark hallway for a few minutes. “Hey, where’s Yomiko? Is she still in the bathroom?”
“Uh, yeah. I need to sleep with Yomiko.”
“Okay. Go lay down in your bed, and I’ll grab Yomiko for you.”
I got up and grabbed Yomiko out of the bathroom. I walked down the hallway to Bella’s room, and handed her the black and white stuffed kitty. “Thanks Mom,” she said, already too sleepy to keep her eyes from fluttering.
She hugged Yomiko tight. I hugged her even tighter.
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