This story is fiction. Learn more about my use of fiction HERE.
Stephanie just figured out that her husband, Gerald, has autism. She hadn’t known about the autism before getting married and having kids. And she hadn’t known about it for the 17 years they had been together.
Finally! Answers! she thought. She had even connected with some other typically developing spouses in an online Facebook group and had been able to share some of her marriage experiences there. It had been so relieving to finally talk to people who understood.
The next thing Stephanie wanted to know was whether or not it would be possible to learn to parent with Gerald — to parent together as a team. Parenting had always pretty much felt like a solo act to Stephanie. She had watched as other couples used team work in their parenting and had wondered if that would be possible for her now, too. Now she had more information about what was going on, after all. Maybe she could make team work happen.
I get it, she thought. Gerald and I communicate differently. We’re like two coils wrapped around each other, always touching, but never connecting. I’m not doing a good enough job of communicating my needs in a way he’ll understand. An since he doesn’t understand my needs, he doesn’t respond to them. He doesn’t help me. He doesn’t get my body language, but if I communicate my needs directly using language, he might understand and help me.
She chose a particular parenting problem she’d been having and decided she’d give teamwork a try.
Recently, the kids had been fighting over the computer for hours upon hours upon hours… non-stop bickering. They hadn’t been able to find a fair way to share it.
Trevor had just turned 15 and was typically developing like his mom. He had recently shot far past Stephanie’s height and put on a lot of new lean muscle. Stephanie was pleased with Trevor’s new strength, but not too happy when Trevor used it to help him win arguments. Yesterday, when she had asked him to give his sister a turn on the computer, Trevor had stood up from the computer chair, puffed out his chest, widened his shoulders, looked down at Stephanie and simply but firmly said, “no.”
That had bothered Stephanie — a lot. If Gerald didn’t have autism, he’d be modeling appropriate body language and Trevor would hopefully be picking up on this. Trevor would already know what he did today was wrong. But with Gerald’s autism, that just wasn’t happening.
Maybe if I help Gerald understand exactly what I need by saying it clearly in words, Gerald will be able to help,” she mused. Maybe that will help me feel like we’re parenting together — together as a team.
Stephanie decided to try to explain to Gerald what she needed. Before dinner, she sat together with Gerald on the couch and recounted the way Trevor had stood and said ‘no’ about sharing the computer.
“Trevor’s just growing into his body,” Stephanie continued after finishing her story of what had occurred. “Trevor doesn’t understand, yet, that he can’t use his size to win arguments. When I ask him to get off the computer and let his little sister have a turn, he can’t just stand up, look down at me and say ‘no.'”
“I agree,” said Gerald, “that’s wrong.” Gerald then went on to speak about how important it is for teenage boys to be strong. “I remember how often I was teased for being small when I was in middle school,” he said. “It was awful. The boys used to put me in the garbage can.”
“Yes,” agreed Stephanie, thinking she felt bad that Gerald had been teased in middle school, but also that they had already spent many many many hours talking about Gerald’s social difficulties. She wanted to focus on the matter at hand. “I am glad Trevor’s growing so much,” she said, redirecting the conversation. “I’m glad he’s strong.” And she really was glad. “But he’s bigger than me now, and he needs to know he can’t use his size against me. Instead, he needs to tell me why his perspective is important to consider and then we’ll consider everyone’s perspectives together and find a solution. That’s the right way to solve the computer problem.”
“I agree,” said Gerald. “Words are always the best solution.”
“You’re his father,” Stephanie continued, feeling pleased that Gerald seemed to have understood her clear and specific communication. “Will you please make sure Trevor understands that men aren’t supposed to use their size to win arguments against women? Can we try to work together to communicate that to Trevor tonight before bed? Together?”
“Yes, of course. I can help with that,” Gerald said. “I definitely see your point.”
“Thank you,” said Stephanie, feeling relieved and hopeful. She had done it! She had thought through exactly what she needed Gerald to understand about the changing social dynamics in the family. She had told Gerald how he could help her navigate one of the normal parts of boys growing bigger than their mothers.
Stephanie couldn’t help but be excited. I really hope Gerald’ll help out now that I’ve explained in a way that makes sense to him! she thought.
That night, after a late dinner, Stephanie and Gerald were standing together in Trevor’s bedroom. Trevor was sitting on the edge of his bed facing his parents.
I’m going to try it now, thought Stephanie. I am going to see if Gerald can support me when I speak to our son about what I need.
“Trevor,” Stephanie began, looking at her son but glancing back at her husband’s face to try to figure out if Gerald could tell that this was the moment she hoped he’d jump in to help. “You’re bigger than me now, Trevor. You could knock me over if you tried. I know you wouldn’t,” she smiled to make sure Trevor knew she wasn’t accusing him of anything, “but I know you could if you wanted to… and you know that too.”
“Yes,” Trevor said as he slid closer to the edge of the bed and straightened his back.
Wow. Trevor’s feeling defensive, Stephanie thought after reading Trevor’s body language. I sure hope Gerald remembers that I asked him to help me explain. Gerald probably didn’t recognize the implications of Trevor’s response.
“So, what I’m trying to say, Trevor,” Stephanie courageously went on, “is that if I ask you to give your little sister a turn with the computer, it’s okay to tell me why you don’t want to and to start a discussion, but it’s not okay to stand up and look down at me and forcefully say ‘no.’ You’re bigger than me. When you do that, you’re using your size to win. That’s not fair to me or your little sister.”
I explained that out loud as clearly as I could, Stephanie thought.
Gerald said nothing.
Gerald’s silence hurt. I thought he understood! I thought he knew that I needed him to help me communicate this to Trevor! I wanted Gerald to work with me to parent the kids. Stephanie felt a raw and lonely ache in her chest.
Trevor stood up and walked nearer to Stephanie. His face was stern and impenetrable.
I can’t believe this is happening, thought Stephanie. Trevor’s doing this right now, right while I’m trying to help him understand not to? This is terrible.
Once he was only a few inches away, Trevor looked down at Stephanie and very seriously said, “But Mom, I am bigger than you.” He raised his eyebrows and smiled sardonically and without humor, looking straight into his mothers eye.
Stephanie sensed a glare. Trevor knows exactly what he’s doing, she thought. And on some level he knows that Gearld doesn’t know, even if he’s not thinking about it. Trevor knows he can get away with this. Now is Gerald’s big chance. Now is Gerald’s chance to support me and stand up to Trevor so Trevor will understand the boundaries.
“Yes,” said Gerald, calmly and seemingly not having noticed that Trevor was communicating anything to his mother. “Trevor is getting big now. And it’s so good for boys to be big.”
“Gerald!” cried Stephanie, hurt and aghast. “I told you I needed you to support me — to help me help Trevor understand that it’s not okay for him to use his new size against me.”
Trevor edged even closer to Stephanie and flexed his chest just as he had earlier in the day when Stephanie had asked him to give up the computer.
Stephanie’s eyes grew wide. Her heart palpitated. It was obvious that Trevor understood he didn’t need to listen to Stephanie’s request and that his father wouldn’t do anything about it. She and Trevor were communicating with a shared language used by typically developing people, but Gerald had no idea what was going on. Somehow, even if Trevor didn’t know his father had autism, Trevor knew he could take advantage of the situation. Trevor had been living in a mixed-neurological family all his life. He didn’t know anything else.
“But it’s true,” said Gerald. “Look how big he is. I don’t see what you’re upset about.”
“No, you don’t!” screamed Stephanie, defiantly agreeing and realizing the autism was preventing Gerald from understanding.
“You don’t have to be so irrational and selfish,” said Gerald calmly. “It isn’t all about you.”
The irony stung and Stephanie was crushed. She turned and ran from the room, sobbing. She ran down the stairs and out the front door, wiping her tears as she ran. Her bare feet scraped across the asphalt.
“This is never going to work,” she said aloud and to no one, again by herself. “Gerald just doesn’t understand. He doesn’t understand Trevor’s body language and he doesn’t understand my perspective or my needs. He doesn’t get the way men use their bodies to communicate with each other and women and…. he just doesn’t get it and I am completely alone. I’ll have to teach Trevor myself.”
Stephanie cried realizing her first hopes for working together with Gerald as a parenting team now that she knew about autism were unrealistic. Communicating her needs clearly in words wouldn’t be enough to help Gerald understand her perspective or the social nuances of body language, eye contact and size. Clear language could never help Gerald understand the nuances of social communication or a son using his size against his mother.
Stephanie was tired. She’d been parenting alone for a long time and it didn’t look like parenting alone would end soon.
After about 30 minutes, Stephanie was ready to re-enter the home. She took a deep breath and stepped in. It felt hot, muggy… claustrophobic.
“Why did you run off like that?” Gerald asked when she entered the bedroom. “You had no right to storm out of the room that way as if Trevor did something wrong — or me. Stop being so selfish.”
Stephanie hid her tears and thought again on the irony.
Anne Janai, M.L.A.
Learn more about my use of fiction HERE.