“Hate the breaks,” one special-needs mom said to us right after Christmas. I used to, too. Wandering through days with Alex, numbing him with Elmo or running ourselves breathless by manhandling the double stroller (can’t leave Ned home) all over upper Central Park, pausing in the playgrounds if the weather was nice. Wanting to shoot ourselves on the couch if the weather was rainy or cold. “What These Parents Did On Spring Vacation,” next time on “Frontline”.
Through both his years of pre-school, Alex unraveled during school breaks, lost in the aimlessness of home. Jill and I were dense in realizing how no school affects an autistic child, and only when we couldn’t scream anymore did we make sure that on the next vacation, boy, we were going to fill his days with painting and reading and trips to the museum and aquarium, playgrounds and zoos and anyplace that could help move the clock from dawn toward bedtime.
Not anymore. I ducked into a special-needs summer camp fair a few months ago, and the first booth I hit revealed to me that Alex, now 5, has aged into a variety of ways to get him out of the house. “We operate during school breaks, and during the last two weeks of August,” the woman at the booth told me, “typically when summer school has ended and just before the new school year begins. It’s like school, only more fun.” I wanted to buy her dinner. Alex is finally getting old enough to move into systems that were built for people like him. And his family. We ignited the forms with the speed of our signatures.
February break breezed by: The respite bus even arrived at quarter to nine, allowing us to sleep in. April break breezed along similarly until Friday, which was Good Friday, and which was the morning my phone rang at 9:30. It was Jill. I asked if Alex got off all right. “His bus hasn’t come,” she said. “Getting kind of nervous here.”
I called the agency. After listening to a few minutes of shuffled and fumbled papers on the other end of the line, I was told that in fact respite camp was closed on Good Friday. Plus which, Alex had the following Monday and Tuesday off before school started on Wednesday.
Five days home, out of nowhere. He goes wild. He dashes every few minutes into our bedroom to root in the drawers. He bolts into the kitchen, where we soon hear him scraping the footstool ladder across the tiles and digging in the pantry for pretzels. He laughs loud and without stop, seemingly with the joy of just not having so many rules. He gets on his back and pitches side to side, then sprawls on the couch and kicks the wall, which we share with neighbors. Toward the end of the break, he stops kicking if I threaten to put him in his room. Hate the breaks.
Tuesday night bedtime is the worst. It rains all day, which means he’s stuck inside with videos, leftover homework, Ned, and a babysitter who deserves a bunch of orange tulips at the end of the day, which she gets. After dinner and toothbrushing, I try both the boys together in their room for reading and bedtime. Alex shrieks, climbs on Ned’s bed, and kicks the wall, laughing. I yell at him, which only elicits a chiding from Ned. Jill takes over while I banish myself to our bedroom to cool down.
Jill takes Ned into the living room to watch “Queer Eye for the Straight Guy,” and I take Alex into his bedroom. I exhaust Tom and Pippo, Mud Is Cake, and all the rest. Alex is semi-supine, so I try to sneak out. A few minutes later, he rattles the doorknob and bolts out. I escort him back; out he comes; I escort him back; out he comes. It’s pushing 10 o’clock when Model Dad barks “GO TO BED!” hard enough to make the windows rattle.
Not a word from him. There never is in moments like this: It’s like those wee-hour scampers for which we’ve tried to teach him to say, “Can’t sleep.” Finally I crack a Beck’s and settle directly outside his door in a chair and wait for him to peer out again. He does. Go to bed! I pull the door to and hold the knob; I feel him twist at it from the other side, and start to screech. I let go. He opens the door. 10:05. Go to bed!
Five minutes later, and the knit of his little brow when he opens the door again tells me that he wants me to come sit with him until he falls asleep. “Alex, say, ‘Come with me.'” Say, Can’t sleep. Say, Excited about going back to school. He leads me to the bed. I sit beside it; I finish my beer. Pretty soon, he’s asleep. I need a vacation.
Jeff Stimpson, 49, is a native of Bangor, Maine, and lives in New York with his wife Jill and two sons. He is the author of Alex: The Fathering of a Preemie and Alex the Boy: Episodes From a Family’s Life With Autism (both available on Amazon). He maintains a blog about his family at http://jeffslife.tripod.com/alextheboy, and is a frequent contributor to various sites and publications on special-needs parenting, such as Autism-Asperger’s Digest, Autism Spectrum News, and The Autism Society news blog.Tweet