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Walking the Special Needs Tightrope

Max, my 8-year-old son, has autism.

I’m not fond of the high functioning versus low functioning dichotomy, but I think it is safe to say that Max is minimally verbal and that his receptive language surpasses his expressive language.

Last year I learned at Max’s school he does jobs. Chores, basically.

Other than picking up his toys, I had never really asked him to do chores at home, and I have to admit, I had even backed off on that after his diagnosis.

It wasn’t a conscious decision.  I didn’t sit down and think, “Max can’t do these things, he’s autistic.”  Yet I had dialed my expectations way back and that was a mistake.

So I started asking him to help more at home and for the most part he has risen to challenge.

He is getting better and better at following instructions, such as, “put this on the table” or, “bring that to mommy.”  Using simple, “first this, then that” phrases helps a lot.

When Max gets in the van these days, I ask him to hand me the seat belt so I can buckle him in.  He usually does this no problem.

Except for when, a few ago days, he didn’t. Max climbed in his booster seat and I asked him to hand me the seat buckle, but he  just turned his head and looked out the window.

This annoyed me far more than it should have.  I asked him again.  There was still no response.  Getting frustrated I said, “If you want to go to the store, you need to hand me the buckle NOW!”

At this Max started to hand me whatever he could reach, which happened to be the toys and books tucked into the seatback pocket in front of him.  It was clear he had no idea what I wanted from him.

He hadn’t been ignoring me, or disobeying me.  He simply hadn’t understood. I thought back about what exactly I had been asking him.  I used the word buckle instead of the seat belt.  I restated the question, asking for the seat belt this time.  He smiled and laughed a little, clearly relieved.  He found the seat belt and handed it to me.

I changed one word out of the sentence, and he had no idea what I wanted.  I had assumed he understood and I was wrong.

The good part is Max forgave me and now he knows what a seat belt buckle is.  The bad part is I hadn’t wondered why he didn’t do as I asked.  I assumed he understood me and I started to lose my temper.  A big mistake.

Sometimes I feel like I am walking a tightrope.

Lean too far one way, and I’m holding him back. Too far the in the other way, and I’m confusing and frustrating him.

Sometimes it’s a more than a little overwhelming, but as his teachers are always telling me, nobody knows Max better than I do.

I need to trust myself even though I will make mistakes from time to time.

And I’m not going to fall off the edge of the earth when I do.


Jenny is a single mom to two boys, one with autism and one neurotypical living smack dab in the middle of Minnesota. She blogs at and is on Twitter as @jitteryplanet

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  1. April 3, 2012 |
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