Sometimes success looks like a little boy sobbing his eyes out.
This success story begins yesterday morning, when Peanut showed up at school in his Halloween costume: a Borg cube. For those of you who aren’t Star Trek fans, let me explain that the Borg are a race of terrifying cyborgs. They travel across the galaxy, assimilating other species and declaring that “resistance is futile”. They are emotionless, determined and relentlessly rational. You know, just the kind of cheery creatures any child would embrace.
When his big sister Sweetie decided to dress as a Borg for Halloween, Peanut declared that he would show up as one of the Borg’s cube-shaped ships. OK, he didn’t show up at school in the costume—he didn’t like the feeling of the cardboard box around his neck. But once he got to school he let me pull the hood of his shirt up over his head (thank you, people who make hooded shirts!), which covered his neck enough to make his costume bearable. He wore it for fifteen full minutes before insisting he had to take it Off. Right. Now. Success!
Taking off the costume wasn’t enough to keep Peanut in class for the morning, however. His support worker was home sick for the day, so Peanut declared that he couldn’t even. No support worker meant his whole schedule was thrown off! As soon as his ten minutes of homeroom were up, he retreated to the special ed teacher’s office, where he asked to play on my iPhone. I wouldn’t give him the phone, but I dug into the stash of books I keep in the special ed office, and found the next book in a series he’s recently discovered. He was thrilled, and settled into a chair to read…which meant that I could actually rush to meet a deadline I had all but given up on when our support worker called in sick. I had my work all wrapped up by the time Peanut finished his book. Another success!
At lunch time he put his costume back on so that he could go back into class and lobby his classmates to vote for him in the costume contest. Over the course of the next hour, he took his costume off—and then put it back on—half a dozen times. Each time I fastened him back up, he trotted off to ask someone else for a vote. None of the other kids seemed to be actively campaigning for a costume prize, but his vote requests were perfectly polite and friendly, and apparently well received. Hurray!
After the voting wrapped up Peanut joined in the school Halloween party. I encouraged him to join his class when it was their turn to hear ghost stories, but he didn’t want to go once he found out they would only be listeners, and not storytellers. He also passed on the Halloween arts and crafts. But he spent over an hour in the board game room, playing happily with a couple of classmates, and without any issues over who won or who lost. Yay!
As we approached the time of the costume ceremony, he started watching the clock. “I really want to win the prize for Best Homemade,” he told me. “Or else, Most Creative.”
“What are you going to do if you don’t win?” I asked.
“I’ll shake the hand of the person who wins, and congratulate them, and then I’ll go home and cry.”
It sounded like an impressive plan, but I wasn’t sure he could stick with it. I did a few practice run-throughs, including scenarios in which the winner had a costume that was not nearly as good as his. He seemed ready.
Finally, the Halloween assembly began. Peanut settled into the middle of the crowd, wearing his uncomfortable costume and a big, hopeful smile. His sister (wearing her own Borg costume) sat down next to him and took his hand.
The assembly would present four awards: Best Homemade was the first. When the prize went to another kid, Peanut looked concerned, but kept a tentative smile on his face. Funniest was next—well, that wasn’t a category he’d hoped for. Then the prize for Spookiest: also a long shot. Finally, they announced the winner for Most Creative…and once again, another child took the prize.
As the last winner accepted his prize, I watched Peanut climb out of his own costume. He stood up, a despondent look on his face, and walked quietly out of the assembly.
By the time I caught up with him he had shut himself back into the special ed office; I could hear him crying on the other side of the door. I knocked gently.
“Go away!” he yelled.
“I’m so sorry, buddy,” I called to him. After a few moments, I opened the door.
At the sight of my face, Peanut sobbed even louder. “Why didn’t I win?” he asked, rhetorically. “Why? Why? Why?”
I tried to comfort him with a hug, but he pushed me away. I told him I really understood how disappointed he was. And I told him how impressed I was that he had come downstairs to have a cry.
“Lots of people would want to cry in this situation,” I said.
He asked if he could use my iPhone for a bit while he calmed down.
“It’s a special situation,” I said, after quickly thinking it over. “I’m really impressed with how you’ve handled yourself. So yes, I understand if you need a little iPhone time now.”
The phone break saw him through the twenty minutes to the end of the school day, when we returned home for a couple of hours of down time before trick-or-treating. He mentioned his disappointment over the costume contest a few more times, and it was the first thing he told his dad about at the end of the day, but there wasn’t any more sobbing.
As the evening grew dark we reminded him that it would soon be time to go out trick-or-treating. While his sister tweaked her costume and I dug out some warm layers for us all to wear, Peanut watched TV and showed little interest in getting his costume back on. Then all of a sudden, there he was: ready to go out. His dad grabbed a jacket and followed him out the door; Sweetie and I had to play catch up.
That set the tone for the next hour. Peanut was in the lead, zigzagging back and forth across the street in a way that made sense to no one but him. He was very particular about which houses he wanted to visit, and the rest of us acceded to his determination.
Peanut walked up to each door with his sister, but he approached each door like a Borg. I don’t just mean the greeting that the two kids coordinated: “We are Borg. Resistance is futile. Your candy will be assimilated.” I mean the way he went after the candy: picking through each bowl that was offered, asking for additional candy, rejecting candies that didn’t meet his exacting standards. After his first candy negotiation, we talked to him about the importance of being polite and taking what you are offered, but despite returning to this theme throughout the evening, he continued with his relentless approach to candy assimilation.
And then, abruptly, he was done.
“I just want to go home now and eat my candy,” he declared, “And have a cry about losing the costume contest.”
This is a kid who lives for candy—and he was letting the contest overshadow the biggest candy grab of the year? Time to fix that mood.
“Haven’t you seen how many people love your costumes?” I asked. “Look at how much candy you’re getting. And hey, the photo I took of your costume got more than a hundred likes on Facebook—that’s more likes than there are kids in your school! Are you going to let that contest ruin your fun?”
Then I stopped, and remembered last Halloween.
Last year, this same kid had trouble going to school on the Friday that his school celebrated Halloween. But he didn’t just take breaks to get through the day: he spent all of an hour at school, and then headed home—just like he did most of that year. He wasn’t even at school when the costume prizes were announced…but was just as devastated when his sister came home and told him he hadn’t won. So devastated, in fact, that he had a raging meltdown, and threatened to kill himself. We put him on a 24-hour watch—our standard protocol whenever he threatens to hurt himself—and spent Halloween shadowing him to ensure he wouldn’t give in to his temporary despair.
So yes, he once again had a hard time making it through school on Halloween…but he was at school for the full school day. Yes, he opted out of big portions of the school’s festivities…but he found the parts he could enjoy, and dove right in. Yes, he was still heartbroken about losing the costume contest…but he didn’t go ballistic: he took his heartbreak to a private space, and had a cry.
This is what success looks like for my autistic 10-year-old. It doesn’t look like being a “normal” kid: the kind of kid who might feel a bit disappointed about losing a contest, but lets that disappointment wash away with the joys of trick-or-treating.
Instead, it looks like hard work: the hard work of mastering intense emotional responses just enough to keep them private. It looks like flexibility: the flexibility to participate in a school activity that deviates from the usual schedule, even on a day when his support worker isn’t there. And it looks like bravery: the bravery that allows him to actually experience the disappointment I was asking him not to feel.
That was the success I had before me last night, in the person of a little guy who wanted to bail after 45 minutes of trick-or-treating. All I had to do was embrace what success looked like for him. After all, resistance is futile.