by Rebecca Gawron
The first blow knocks my glasses to the floor, as usual; like I’m on auto pilot, I immediately search for them, snatch them up, and toss them on the dashboard for safekeeping. For some reason he always gives me time to do this before the second strike. In his current frame of mind I don’t think he cares about anything more than survival, so I’m sure this hesitation has nothing to do with me or my glasses. Like an act I can set my watch by, the anticipated second contact happens. Keeping my head low, I put my arm out in an effort to not only protect myself, but also to push him back, away from the front of the bus and the stairs. I want him in a seat where he can be more easily contained because we are both working on instinct. His is telling him to fight and defend while mine is telling me to do what it takes to keep both of us safe.
We have been making progress the last few years and these altercations have become far less common than they used to be, so his strength both surprises me and reminds me that he isn’t a boy anymore; he is closer to being a man. It is become more difficult to keep us safe.
I push him back and he falls down into the seat. Trying to take advantage of this brief moment when he is on his heels, I put my body against his, pinning him in the seat, my arms holding his, crossed over his chest. Not wanting to give him any leverage, I’m left to sit and watch as he digs his teeth into my arm and bites down. The skin breaks and, for a split second, he looks up at me, my arm still in his mouth, hoping to see my pain. Experience has taught me that any sign of pain is like a reward that motivates him. He releases his clutch on my flesh and blood runs down my arm, slowly dripping onto his shirt. Unfortunately, this too motivates him. Moving his head slightly to the right, he finds a new spot on my arm and digs in again and, again, I don’t react.
We are stalemated for what seems like an eternity as he wiggles, trying to find a way to free himself. My hands ache but I continue to hold my position, trying not to let his strength overpower me but, in the end, he wins this battle and my tired hands lose their grip on him. The war rages on and I’m knocked off balance by his strength. I am forced on my ass into the seat across the aisle. I get up quickly, not wanting to give him time to take full advantage of the high ground. Going low is my only defense so, like a running back with yards to gain, I turn and let my shoulder lead the way. I wrap my arms around his waist and he falls back into the seat again but, with his arms flailing, he gets a couple good shots to my head. Forced back into the seat behind me, all I can do is watch as he makes a break for the back of the bus.
We both stop for a moment, catching our breath. I don’t take my eyes off of him as he rests in the back seat. I know every detail of his face, from the buzzed red hair on top of his head to the scar under his chin, the result of a fall into an old, wooden coffee table when he was seven. I remember how hard it was to stitch that up. Four orderlies, two on each side, stretched two blankets out across his body and held him down with all the strength in them, and as another held his head, the doctor sewed him up. Five stitches later they carefully let go of their hold. It took all those grown adults and he was only seven. Now, that spot on his chin is the trickiest part of his face to shave. I kiss that cheek every night at bed time, and I have been wiping that nose for 17 years, but in his eyes, I cannot find the child I dropped off at school just two hours earlier.
When we arrived at school he was excited, ready to see friends and take on the challenges of the day. He stopped at my seat before stepping off the bus so we could do our usual exchange of “love you” and “have a good day.” The teacher waiting for him and his fellow bus mates greeted him with her usual, “Good Morning D.J.!” He returned her enthusiasm with a fist bump. I gave a final wave and was on my way. To me, everything seemed to be business as usual but, what do I know about the inner workings of his mind.
Too many times people underestimate the abilities of kids like him. He is able to read and loves books. If his physical disabilities allowed for it, he would be able to write clearly as well. Cerebral Palsy has limited his fine motor skills. Cognitively speaking, he is not on par with other kids his age, but the extent of his challenges are unclear because of his inability to communicate effectively. He is nonverbal and that holds him back in many ways. Much of his frustration and aggression stem from that but he has other skills. Skills that set him apart from other autistic children. Unlike most kids with autism, D.J. is very social and makes friends everywhere he goes. He can charm even the coldest of characters with his smile and genuine interest in their lives. Every child has that one thing that they love, that sets them apart from the crowd, and that they excel at. DJ’s is basketball and he can throw three pointers all day if you let him.
I can’t imagine what must be going through his mind. What could be driving him to fight like this? Locked away, somewhere deep inside his mind, something is telling him he is in a fight for his life. Eventually, he will come back to me and I will never know why it happened. His inability to communicate will keep me the dark. I can’t even say for sure that he will remember what happened or why even if he could tell me. Later, I will ask him yes or no questions and he will give answers in sign, smiling the whole time. I will ask the same question twice and get two different answers. Questions like, “D.J., have you been a good boy?” He will give me a thumbs up indicating he was good. I will ask again and he will give me thumbs down.
This is the real face of autism. The one they don’t show you on T.V. I watch Max on Parenthood and I am amazed at how a child actor can portray the characteristics so well. The unwillingness to make eye contact, the inability to read the facial expressions of the people around him, the seemingly random behavior, and the need for perfection in his surroundings. All these behaviors are attributes of a child on the spectrum and he nails each one. The only problem is that his problems, like most T.V. problems, get resolved so easily. Sure, Max gets upset and gives a little push, or runs out of the room, unable to understand the position of the person he is dealing with but, with a small pep talk from a parent, he is quickly redirected to a much more manageable path. No blood, no bruising, no break to catch your breath needed, and certainly no little school bus rocking around on the side of the road.
Don’t get me wrong, I love the show, but it just brushes the edge of what it is like to live with this affliction. I appreciate their attempt and at times applaud their efforts to show the stress of a family coping with autism. They show us Adam frustrated and Kristina left wondering what she can do to help her son. I can relate to what both parents are feeling. They are good parents but the challenges they are facing on T.V. don’t really reflect the reality of a family trying to survive.
Unfortunately, people believe what they see on T.V. and they think it’s that simple. The show leaves out the scenes of a child overcome by visual stimulation because a tired and almost dead florescent bulb is blinking at the doctor’s office, setting the child into a fearful rage that no one else, even the parent, can ever understand. Television neglects the effect noise can have on a child with autism when the grocery store is too crowded or a baby is crying in the next aisle. The fight or flight hormone that is released when a person feels fear runs rampant through his brain telling his body how to react. He begins the fight to save himself and this fight is with everything and everyone. He clears entire shelves of pasta and throws canned goods over the racks and into the next aisle. A parent’s only defense is to restrain and contain her child as quickly as possible. I can only guess what it must feel like to be that child, but I know what it feels like to be that parent.
Every customer and employee of the store is watching you with judging eyes. You know what they must be thinking because, if you were like them, on the outside looking in, you would be thinking it too. Some think, ‘It looks like someone needs to work harder on discipline,’ or, ‘She treats him like an animal so of course he is going to behave like one.’ There are others still thinking, ‘She can’t treat that child that way! She is abusive to him! She has no right being a parent.” The parents’ fear is just as real as her child’s because she has to worry about how these people are going to react, or what will happen if an innocent bystander is hurt in the chaos her child is creating.
So on this day, sitting in this school bus, I am not only aware of my child who will attack again at any second, I am also aware of the people outside the bus. I take this breather to look around. Has anyone noticed? If they have, what are their facial expressions telling me? Will this be the time when finally the police are called? I’m sure anyone who doesn’t know us will think I am merely a bus driver. Will they run in and get school staff to help me or will the mentality be to stop me? Fortunately for me, no one has seemed to notice. Well, not no one. The driver of the bus that has pulled up behind me is staring, her mouth half open. We are colleagues and acquaintances. Nothing more than hello has passed between us but I am certain she has seen DJ and I around the bus yard together, she must know he is my son. Like me, she spends her days working with children like my son, but even that experience doesn’t guaranty an open or less judgmental mind.
My attention is brought back to DJ as he swings open emergency exit door in the back of the bus. He is standing in front of the door, fists clenched and ready for another round. He towers over the doorway, and me. Normally, I would bring the fight to him hoping to gain some control, but this time I simply stand my ground, letting him come to me, because going towards him could mean him, and maybe even me, falling out that open door and dropping to the ground. “Son, let’s close the door so no one falls out. How about you sit right there in that seat and I will go close it? Then we will both be safe.” His swing to my head is all the answer I need and the fight is back on.
After some more scuffling around he is again contained in a seat and I try to reason with him, “You need to calm down, son. We can’t go back to school today and no amount of fighting is going to change that. Let’s settle down, buckle up, and go home.” After a couple minutes, this seems to work and I slow ease off of him and out of the seat, he buckles in. As I make my way to the front of the bus, first one shoe, and then the other fly past me bouncing off of the dash. I turn around and he begins to cry, a typical sign for him meaning he has given up the fight. I think to myself, ‘He has nothing left to throw and he is probably spent, we should be able to leave now.’ Silly me. At the first traffic light I watch in the mirror as his sock shoots out the window and gently falls to the ground.
For the next two blocks he throws seatbelts at the windows. The buckles hit the glass and all I can do is hope this bus is built to handle something like this. I turn the country music up and he finally starts to calm down. He will either be calm for days to come, or he will cry aloud and sad-cry for the next hour or two. Either way, there are consequences for him. He is suspended for tomorrow. Not so much to teach him a lesson, but more to give everyone, including him, a break. I don’t know if he will learn anything from this experience but I do know that I have not. He is as much a mystery to me now as he was yesterday.
Category: Fiction, Short Story