Today was an unusual day. My husband, Mustache Pete, had to work graveyard last night, so he was sleeping it off. My mother had to take her stepmother to the doctor in the city, so she wasn’t around to “help” (AKA tell me everything she would have done differently) with my son, Mario. School is out for Christmas break for another week. There are only so many block houses I can build to the exacting specifications of my eight-year-old general contractor, the autist. So I decided we would take a field trip out to lunch, just Mario and me.
There are many adjustments you have to make when you give birth to an autist. With ours, we have chosen to view his rigidity with humor, because we prefer not to smack our heads into a wall. Mario calls his rigidity his “rules.” He calls himself “the mayor,” as in, “I don’t have to put on my shoes, because I am the mayor of this street.” To which we might say, “I don’t care what you are the mayor of, put on your shoes.” To which he might acquiesce, and put on his damn shoes, or we might end up with me, my mom, and my husband forcing the shoes onto his feet as he laughs and takes them off again. I do not know what life is like with a child who does what you say out of fear for consequences. Mario cannot grasp consequences.
Sometimes we call Mario “the decider,” but on New Year’s Eve he decided he liked “the director” better. One thing does not change, however: he is genuinely distressed when the rules he sets are not followed. Our psychiatrist, who is from the very old school, says, “Don’t worry. My own son is an aspcious autist like Mario, and now that he is in his last year of college, sometimes we have only to say, ‘now son, think about what you are doing,’ when he gets upset because things are not going his way. And he has some friends and is thinking of getting a girlfriend, now that he is 22.” Mario, playing a game on Dr. Dontworry’s phone, is ever vigilant. Later he will tell me, “Remember, Mommy, the doctor said not to try to stop me from following my rules.”
The rules. The right shoe must go on before the left. The toothpaste is from two different tubes, and the Pepsodent goes on underneath the Aquafresh, but only after the brush has been wet. There was a year when all clothing had to be red and green, but only one color on each item, and shirt and pants could not be the same, so it was red shirt/green pants or vice versa. And the food rules. Before we moved to the big city for several months to learn to chew at the autism institute at age four, the food had to be soft enough to be swallowed without chewing, and only certain brands of pudding, yogurt, instant mashed potatoes. Then we followed him around all day with a spoon, and that’s what kept him from having a feeding tube, that my mother and I spent all our time feeding him.
Now he has expanded his repertoire greatly, but nothing like a typical child would have by the age of eight, and there are additional rules. No one must touch Mario if he or she is eating something that Mario does not like. It is preferred that one wash ones hands and brush one’s teeth after eating the non-preferred food, but in certain moods hand sanitizer will suffice. Mario will not even sit next to you, never mind touching, if you are eating something really out of bounds, such as a salad. And that brings me back to my field trip to a restaurant, earlier today, when I was young.
Mario was excited, because it was a special lunch date for just him and Mommy. But he couldn’t decide what restaurant to go to until he’d licked my arm a couple of times and made two posts in his blog. Then the decider, the director, decided. It was to be IHOP. Time to order, and he is sitting on the same side of the booth as me. The waiter approaches. I am a direct sort of person, not unkind, but apparently still frightening, so I’m working on being “nice” for 2013. I smile and ask the waiter how he is doing. Mario orders hot chocolate from the very patient waiter, telling the man that he would like lots of whipped cream, then whispers to me that he would like mac and cheese. (This is Kraft Mac and Cheese that they serve, by the way, I know it by sight from a lifetime of Kraft Mac and Cheese, but Kraft Mac and Cheese, according to the rules, is never to be eaten at home, only at IHOP. Really.) And then the waiter begins to realize that something is wrong, when I ask Mario, “Is it okay if Mommy gets a hamburger?” It is permitted.
The waiter returns with the drinks, and there is too much whipped cream on Mario’s hot chocolate for The Rules, and Mario lets him know. And to my shock, Mario’s polite argumentative stance has the same effect on this poor waiter as it does on me, my parents, and Mustache Pete: the waiter is drawn into an argument with my eight year old about where in the cup the level of hot chocolate ends and the whipped cream begins. How does this happen? Sometimes my mother will be arguing with Mario about what he is going to eat for supper, back and forth, and Mustache Pete will look up from what he is doing and say, “This is CNN Crossfire,” in a deep announcer’s voice, and my mother will realize that she is again arguing with an eight year old. I know she would have spanked me for opening my mouth even once and saying the things that Mario says all day. But this is asperger’s. It is a medical diagnosis of assholism.
I marvel only for a second that the waiter has fallen into the trap, and I say, “I’m sorry he is so particular; he has autism.” He smiles and stops arguing, as Mario continues trying to push the errant whipped cream down into the cup with his spoon. You see, I really don’t care that the waiter, and everyone else we encounter, all day long, probably thinks I am one of those free-range parents who has little discipline at home. This is what I keep trying to convince my therapist: I don’t care what people think, until what they think causes them to act in a way that isn’t to my benefit. My kid and I annoy someone, and we get bad service because of it, for example. (The service is excellent, and I end up tipping about 45%.) See, that’s what I care about: the action that comes from what the waiter thinks, not literally what the waiter thinks.
The food comes quickly, and I have forgotten to get authorization to order onion rings. Mario sits on the very end of the bench away from me, scarfing down his Kraft Mac and Cheese that only tastes good at IHOP, and I know how much he loves me because he doesn’t go and sit on the other seat in the booth. Until he realizes that there is a pickle on my plate. On my plate, now, friends and neighbors, not even in my mouth yet. But as my loving son, my Sugar Bear, takes his book and goes to the other side on the booth, he keeps a sharp eye out for the waiter: Mommy did not get any mayonnaise, and Mario is going to take it upon himself to flag down the waiter. He has to be convinced that I am almost done with my burger and don’t want him to flag down the waiter. He genuinely is shocked that I eat the burger without mayo. Rules are for Mommy’s benefit too, and not just for my frustration and amusement.
P.S. When my father tries to play a game with Mario later in the afternoon, and runs up against new rules, he says, “Mario, I am going to call you The Boss. Boss Hogg.” I tell my father that Mario got the waiter to argue with him, because there was too much whipped cream on the hot chocolate at IHOP, Mario corrects me swiftly. “No, Mommy, you are wrong. You are wrong, Mommy. There was not too much whipped cream. There was not enough hot chocolate.”