Empathy in Advocacy: Recognizing my Non-Verbal Son’s Exhausting School Day
August 23, 2023
By: James Guttman
Some days, I have to literally drag him from the school bus. Whether by the hand or coaxing through a dangling iPad, the fact that I have to entice my boy to come to me after a long day of school is embarrassing on a number of levels.
I dealt with this at pick-up last year too. Getting my non-verbal son after a long school day is a chore in and of itself. It’s both physically taxing and emotionally exhausting.
The whole time I prepare to get him, I get excited to see his face. My round little fella with the infectious smile is on his way home. I picture all the fun we’ll have and the happiness on his face when he sees me.
When that smile is replaced by a whine and drop to the ground, I feel like the worst parent in the world. For a boy who does all of his emotional output through mannerisms, this type of response to his dear old dad is the non-verbal equivalent of being cursed.
Deep inside, I want to be offended. I want to lecture him about being a “big boy” and how he wouldn’t like it if I did it to him. I rerun previous conversations I had with previous incarnations of his sister through the years. Every parent can feel my pain. They know the frustration that makes a mom or dad turn their head, bite their inner bottom lip, and pray to the God of patience that you can make it through one more pickup.
Does he do this because he hates me? It feels that way. In previous years, it gave me a complex. As we’d leave the scene of his meltdown, where other parents watched him flail, he’d be all smiles once we walked 20 feet away. I’d look at him with an expression of exasperation and say, “Dude. They’re going to think I do weird things to you. Can you please stop acting like that at pick-up?”
And what would he do? Smile, laugh, and kiss me. This freakin’ kid.
So, if it’s not hate that causes this disappointing reaction of disappointment., what is it? The answer, it turns out, is pretty simple.
He likes to sleep on the bus.
It took a while to come to that conclusion, but I saw it play over time. When I arrived to get him, typically in front of the waiting school buses, he would be sad. Rather than jetting around town for 15 minutes in a long seat that he can fully lie down in, he now had a two-minute ride a few blocks away in the Jeep. I didn’t realize it then. But I know it now.
He didn’t act this way anywhere else. If he truly hated me, he would act the same way when I got him from his mom’s house. He doesn’t. He happily takes my hand. It’s only the bus. That’s it.
And why is that? It’s because the school bus is his respite after a long day of school. My little guy has some of the most strenuous days out of all of us and has been doing so for a decade. He busts his butt every single school day to learn concepts, build language, and mature in ways he doesn’t fully understand. He is diligent on levels that any parent would hope for.
Yet, the squeakiest wheel gets the most grease and my kid doesn’t squeak at all. Lucas, being non-verbal with autism, doesn’t complain about his day. There are no eye rolls and stories about stupid teachers or rude classmates. Rather, he goes, does his thing, and comes home. For his family, it’s as if nothing happened all day. He was here. He left. He came home. The totality of his day is 90% mystery and 10% whatever his teacher wrote in the notebook.
But those tough things did happen all day. My guy hustled from the time the sun came up until the bus brought him back to the neighborhood. He’s tired. If you really stop to think about how long his journey both during that particular day and the entirety of his life is, you can’t help but have compassion.
Most people don’t have that compassion because they never think of things from his point of view. They see a boy like mine whining and they think he’s being fussy or difficult simply due to autism. They might write it off, ignore him, or force him to come to some errand they have planned for themselves. It takes a lot of effort to see the agitation that he might be experiencing…especially when you’re agitated yourself.
My son and I have a great relationship and that’s because I try to see the world from his unspoken perspective. I’m aware that he can’t tell me he’s tired from a long day, so I try to anticipate those feelings by watching his reactions and remembering what he did that day. I look at him as a person first.
His meltdowns started to become less confusing when I started putting myself in his shoes. So many outbursts that many would shrug off are really natural reactions to situations we’d all be annoyed at if we were in his place. When you factor in that he doesn’t have the language to explain some of the more nuanced situations, even with a communication device, it not only seems natural, but it seems cruel to ignore.
Lucas deserves the benefit of the doubt. It’s why I try to not react with anger, even when he appears to be acting unreasonably. I could never imagine being unable to explain myself during my most difficult moments. If I were in that position, I’d want someone to be able to see me as a person and try to understand where I am coming from, despite my lack of words.
So, I make it my goal to be that person for him. He deserves that love and respect. He works hard enough all day to earn it.
James Guttman is a devoted father of two, with one child, Lucas, being nonverbal. His blog, HiBlogImDad.com, centers around “Autism Appreciation,” which champions the idea that autism enriches Lucas’s personality in wonderful ways.
A three-time traditionally published author of best-selling titles, James has been featured on platforms like Yahoo, Love What Matters, The Mighty, Autism Speaks, Autism Parenting Magazine, and beyond. Recognizing its unique perspective, Healthline.com has spotlighted “Hi Blog” as one of their Top Autism Blogs. In 2019, he introduced the aptly titled podcast, “Hi Pod! I’m Dad.”