It was a weekend full of Olympic disappointment. After the magic of last Saturday’s U.S. win over Russia, which we experienced together, and Ryan’s excitement over Team USA’s berth in the semifinals against Canada on Friday, well, things didn’t exactly go as planned.
Ryan made it through school Friday without learning of the USA-Canada result — a deflating 1-0 win for Canada. He watched as soon as he got home. He was fully absorbed in the game, but one of the many things I love about how Ryan experiences hockey is that he’s able to move on rather easily from the crushing disappointments.
For the uninitiated, the tensions of single elimination or sudden-death hockey offer both unprecedented drama and heartbreak. As the brilliant sports blogger Spencer Hall of SB Nation put it on Twitter during the USA-Canada game:
Ryan has been on both sides of the coin, but he doesn’t let the losses linger. By Saturday morning he was once again fired up to watch Team USA play Finland for the bronze medal. This, too, did not go well, with the Americans crashing and burning out of the tournament in a 5-0 loss.
I promised to take Ryan to his favorite pizza place for lunch after the game, to either celebrate or bury our disappointment. It’s a short walk down the street from our house, a small hole-in-the-wall takeout joint that has a few stools at the counter. We’ve gotten to know the owner over the years, as Ryan is one of his best customers. He’s opened on off days to cater Ryan’s birthday party. He loves hockey and sometimes even puts pro-New York Rangers messages on the inside of the box when we pick up an order, just to taunt Ryan.
After weeks of snow and ice and freezing rain and sub-freezing temperatures, this weekend finally provided a bit of spring thaw. There was enough melting to make the short walk to the pizza parlor a possibility as the sidewalks were finally (mostly) clear. It was nice just to get outside.
Ryan and I set out. As we walked, I noticed right away that he eschewed the clear path on the sidewalk in favor of waking in the remaining snow on the sides.
This has been a behavior of his forever. We joke that they should call the sidewalk the “sidewalk-beside” whenever Ryan is upon it. He always walks on the edge of the grass (or snow) or the curb. I am forever reminding him that walking on people’s grass is considered impolite. This is particularly true when they are trying to grow grass right next to the curb. To all my neighbors whose grass saplings Ryan has trampled over the years, I apologize. I tried my best.
This behavior used to drive me nuts. It led to arguments. I did not understand why my child could not simply walk down the middle of the sidewalk — like everybody else.
I’d mostly given up trying to get him to stop, but more out of frustration than any effort to understand why.
As he happily crunched through the snowbanks in his boots, I started to ask him to walk on the sidewalk for the umpteenth time in his life, but I checked myself.
As my understanding of my son and my thinking about autism have evolved, I’ve made a conscious effort to understand his behaviors instead of just trying to “correct” them. I like to think I have a pretty good handle on how my son’s mind works, but I’m still learning, one juice cup at a time. I’ve also learned to pick my battles. I try to let harmless quirks go.
The goal is not for Ryan to be like everyone else. The goal is for Ryan to be comfortable with who he is. The goal is for us to understand him, so he can be understood by others. The goal is for him to grow into a self-confident person who is able to fully experience and find his way in life. Walking beside the sidewalk is not likely to deter any of that.
That’s not to say we never try to correct him or alter certain behaviors. We want him to understand socially expected vs. unexpected behaviors, not because we want him to stifle a significant part of himself, but because things like table manners matter and will affect his ability to form social connections with his peers.
It’s an evolving thought process. Ryan already thinks we’re too “bossy,” which is part “I’m 13 and everything my parents say is annoying” and part “would you leave me the heck alone and stop correcting me every two seconds.”
There’s a balance we’re trying to strike, and I’ll be the first to admit we don’t always get it right. Thankfully, Ryan has the words to remind us when we don’t. Thankfully, these days this often leads to conversations about how things like personal appearance and manners, well, matter to the process of making friends, something Ryan enthusiastically wants to do.
Which brings me back to our Saturday afternoon pizza parlor walk.
I stopped myself from asking him not to walk in the snow. Something about the way he crunched how boots into the snow right next to perfectly clear walkway caused a light to go on.
“Can I ask why you walk in the snow rather than on the sidewalk?” I said.
“I just like it,” Ryan said.
“Do you like how it sounds? How it feels?” I asked, hopeful of making some discovery.
“Yeah. Both. Can we get back to talking about hockey?” came the answer.
I dropped the subject and we resumed our conversation about the Olympic hockey tournament. It wasn’t a breakthrough, but it was a baby step towards understanding.
Is there some sort of sensory issue at play here? Possibly. While Ryan doesn’t suffer from sensory overload, he does have some sensory-based habits and often seeks sensory feedback from his environment. He cannot eat if certain smells are present. He often runs his hands around the edge of whatever is in front of him — a desk, a table, etc. — as if seeking to confirm its boundaries. Maybe walking next to sidewalks provides him some sort of sensory feedback that gives comfort or regularity. Maybe it’s a form of stimming.
I’m not sure I’ll ever know. But I will resolve not to bug him about it again (unless freshly planted grass is involved).
Just about every day teaches me something new about Ryan. I don’t think the way he does, so I have to work to understand him. I will never be done learning about him.
We arrived at the pizza place and were greeted warmly by the owner. We talked a little hockey and ate our pizza together at the counter. And on the way back I didn’t say anything as Ryan crunched his way through the snow.
More than a decade after Ryan’s diagnosis, I am still learning. One step at a time.