Ignoring, Not Ignorance

Ryan and the ocean 2012-13
Ryan contemplating the ocean (2012, left); Ryan enjoying the ocean (2013, right). Notice the difference?

It feels like just yesterday I was fighting tears at Riley’s elementary school “moving up” ceremony, having parachuted in between Games 4 and 5 of the Stanley Cup Final.

And yet tomorrow the new NHL season kicks off with the opening preseason games. That will be one day after my two middle-schoolers!!!!! finish their first week of school, and one day before Ryan officially becomes a teenager. In between was a summer that surpassed all expectations, capped by the best family vacation we’ve ever taken.

I have many stories to get to, many notes to myself to remember things I want to write about. Before I tackle the start of the school year, the start of hockey season, or Ryan’s upcoming milestone birthday, I want to go back a few weeks to that glorious vacation.

We were on the beach, Veronica and I trading off reading our books and watching the kids play in the ocean surf. I found myself happily observing Ryan, who had already spent more time in the salt water by the second or third day than the previous two years — combined.

Gone was the constant spitting in response to the salt spray on his lips. Gone was his refusal to venture more than knee-deep into the water. Gone was the need to constantly entertain him with one of our hockey-based beach games. It was just him and the waves, for hours. He waded through them, jumped through the crashing surf and attempted to body-surf the occasional one back towards shore.

Oh, and something else.

When the on-shore breeze felt like blowing, it carried bits and pieces of his voice back to us, sitting in our beach chairs. The sound was just frequent enough for me to tell he was doing some sort of hockey play-by-play, but intermittent enough that I couldn’t figure out exactly what he was doing.

So I asked. I asked when he came in for a drink of water and I asked when I swam out to join him and cool off in the ocean.

He refused to tell me. I suspect he withheld because he feared I would tell him to stop.

And a year or two before, I might have.

This was another of those “for him, or for me?” moments, and I’m happy to report this time I didn’t hesitate.

He wasn’t bothering anybody. He was clearly content. Sure, the occasional head turned when another ocean-goer ventured nearby.

And you know what?

I didn’t care.

If previous interventions in similar situations were a sign of ignorance — ignorance of my understanding of his need to be himself and not try to be just like everyone else — the decision to ignore him this time was bliss.

It allowed him to continue enjoying himself in the ocean. I felt satisfaction at what I take as sign of progress in my personal journey down the autism path.

Similar situations will continue to require careful consideration, as we attempt to balance allowing — even encouraging — Ryan to be himself — with giving him the best chance to assimilate in a way that makes him comfortable.

My goal is not for Ryan to be just like every other kid. It’s for him to be happy and fulfilled and have the tools to successfully navigate the path to that goal himself. At times that will mean embracing the quirks and special interests that are as much a part of him as his hands and feet. At times it will mean learning to regulate himself to achieve those goals, such as making friends and having people to sit with at school lunchtime.

In this case, the choice of “ignoring” over “ignorance” was easy. That won’t always be the case. But just as we are trying to arm Ryan with the tools to best navigate this path, so too are we picking up perspective, knowledge and yes, tools, as we follow on a similar journey.

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