Dinner with a side of Autism

I hear the volume increasing, and my stomach tenses. Still, I ignore, stay turned to the task at hand, dinner in the making: skins thinly peeled from slices of ripe-bursting peach, rice steamed to softness.

And then the pitch rises again. And the thuds. And the keening. And the wail. The wail that cannot be ignored: Mooooooooooommmmaaay!

In their bedroom is a tangled mess of snot and confusion. Jacob with glasses awry. Ethan with hands on temples, shrieking “He head butted me, he head butted me!”

Jacob, alternately growling like a caged lion and laughing theatrically, a perfect rendition of a cartoon villain's world-destruction-anticipating cackle. Ethan now lurching at his brother with clenched fists and a growl of his own, “I’m going to kill him!”

And me? I’m in the middle again; sorting, soothing, trying to make sense of the senseless. I don’t even bother asking what or who started it, for these things just start.

Ethan is maddened by this idea, full of indignation and bluster, dead sure of his own absolute blamelessness in the matter. “He’s the worst, the meanest brother in the world! He took my Pikachu, he laughed at me when I tried to take him back!”

I could explain, for the hundred thousand and second time, that there is not the same purposefulness behind Jacob's actions as there would have been had Ethan been the perpetrator, that the motivator is not cruelty.

But why?

Ethan knows his brother has autism. He's never going to be happy about it.

Once again, the physical damage is minimal. The psychic, massive.

Ethan’s anger is a wildfire, burns blue-hot, consumes all in its path. He spits words at Jake through gritted teeth “Do. Not. Laugh. At. Me. Ever. Again!” Which Jacob, of course, cocooned in his autistic obliviousness to much that is normal human discourse, finds hysterical.

Jake love, love, loves his brother brimming full like this, is getting his lasered attention, for once. And just to ratchet up the annoyance factor? Begins to repeat his usual mispronunciation of his brother’s name in his most grating sing-song voice: “Oh, Eeee-fan” giggle “Eeeeee-fan” giggle.

If glares could kill, Ethan would be the only man standing.

Thoughts of dinner temporarily abandoned, separate them I must. Jake to remain in their room, Ethan to come with me into my bedroom; to float in the middle of my big bed, try to find his calm, regain his rudder.

Sponge Bob on the TV providing perfect distraction, I return to the scene of the crime, find Jacob rubbing the spot on his shin that will surely sprout a game-token sized plum splotch by bath time.

Mystery bruises his usual specialty, at least this time I know the culprit: bed-frame.

"Are you Okay, Jake?" I ask.

"Efan was MAD!" he says with glee.

"Yes." I agree, breathe deep, dive into an explanation made as simple as can be, but still fitting the bill. "When you took his toy he got mad. And when you laughed about it he got madder. It's mean to laugh at people when they are mad or sad, Jake. Do you want to be mean?"

And then he's got his contrite face on. The one he pulls up when he knows he's done something wrong, but can't understand for beans precisely what. "No" he answers, fairly sure that this is the right answer, the one that will grant him hugs and cuddles, absolve him of all transgressions.

And it does.

"Come here, honey," I say as he climbs into my lap, my eight year-old, eighty pound toddler.  I put some music on the radio and we sway together for a minute, but stomachs are grumbling and dinner sits, bereft, barely halfway complete.

Ethan's laughter trickles through my bedroom doorway, mood lifted by the magic of television, as I make my way back to the kitchen, to settle once again into the rhythms of cooking.

Then, to pick up the scattered fragments, to shake the jangly shards of our family back into a familiar shape.

Dinnertime.

Let's eat.


Varda writes about Autism, parenting, eldercare, grief, ADD, parenting in general, and tells stories from her wild and varied past on her blog, The Squashed Bologna: a slice of life in the sandwich generation.

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