“Who wants ice cream sundaes for dinner?” I called out as I headed up the stairs to our playroom, where all five of the kids had built a complicated fort out of pillows and blankets. I was feeling reckless; it was the second day of Christmas vacation and Joe was working late. We’d had a lazy morning and a very late lunch at TGI Fridays, so no one was particularly hungry for dinner. (And I didn’t really feel like cooking.)
And so we trooped into the kitchen and the kids assembled their sweet feast. Three different kinds of ice cream, sprinkles, chocolate sauce, whipped cream. For the first time in a few hours the house was quiet except for the clatter of spoons and occasional can I try a bite of your peppermint if I give you a bite of my cookies and cream.
In his usual fashion, Jack finished his sundae quickly and quietly; without a word he scraped every last sprinkle from the bottom of his sticky bowl. When he was through he hopped off of his stool and bounced over to open the freezer, where he selected an ice cream sandwich. “I’m going to have this for treat.”
I looked at him blankly for a moment. I really didn’t know what to say, but I was thinking didn’t we just eat ice cream? I glanced over at nine-year old Joey, who shrugged his shoulders and seemed as mystified as I was. Three-year old Henry started to giggle and chortled, “You no have ice cweam AFTER ice cweam! We already have ICE CWEAM!” (This, from a boy who was eating his sundae without a stitch of clothes.)
“But I always have TREAT after my dinner!” Jack whined indignantly.
And he was right. In our house, we almost always follow up dinner with dessert; a cookie, piece of pie, a popsicle. Jack is especially partial to ice cream after his meal, and his unwavering habit of making himself a bowl of it as soon as he finishes his dinner always reminds me of a little old man.
Jack is not the sort of kiddo who is firmly locked into a routine of hours and minutes and time. He doesn’t need dinner at exactly 6:00 pm followed by a bath at 7:00. He doesn’t get upset if the bus comes in the morning at 7:08 instead of 7:09, or if we stay an extra half-hour at the playground.
But he does prefer a certain rhythm to the day, for things to follow along in order. Baths are after dinner, he starts homework after spending some time playing Wii, and we always, always kiss him goodnight right before he nods off to sleep. Jack doesn’t care about time, but if you mess with the order of his universe there could be trouble. Like screaming-and-kicking-for-an-hour trouble. Red-zone-tantrum trouble.
He also likes items and furniture in the house to remain predictable; just this morning he marched into the office, where I sat writing this post, to report, “Someone moved the OTTOMAN.” Then he marched right back out to (huffily) return it to its usual spot by the couch.
About two years ago I was talking to our psychologist about Jack’s need for order; I told her how he had a meltdown a week earlier because we made an unplanned stop at the grocery store on the way home from church. For a cucumber. (Meltdown: uncontrollable screaming, kicking the back of my seat, beating his head with his open palms. We never did make it into Hannaford’s.) She suggested explaining such situations as zig-zag moments; times when things are out of order, unexpected, or suddenly change.
I loved it.
I used it for the first time a few weeks after my appointment with the psychologist. The boys had just gotten off the bus from school, and I needed them to get in the car right away so I could take Rose, who was running a high fever, to the doctor. As I expected, Jack flew into a tailspin. I barely got him in the car, but once he’d buckled in I took his tear-stained face in my hand, and with our noses almost touching I told him this was a zig-zag time; a small change. He calmed long enough to mouth the words back to me.
We always have the same babysitter on Saturday nights, and Jack adores her. Each week after dinner and baths, all five kids bring pillows and blankets and popcorn into the family room to watch their favorite show, Wipe Out. All day long Jack anticipates the fun. And although it’s usually on at the same time, every Saturday morning he carefully checks the cable guide to confirm it. By 10:00 am he announces, “Wipe Out tonight! 7:00!”
A few weeks ago Jack bounded into my room around nine on Saturday morning, towel in hand. “I’m taking my SHOWER now.” he told me in clipped tones. I said I thought that was a fine idea, but asked why he was taking it so early. “Because. Wipe Out is on tonight and I don’t like to RUSH!”
To someone who doesn’t know Jack or the intricacies of his mind or the complicated disorder that is autism, this voluntary shift in my boy’s showering schedule may seem like no big deal. But in fact, it’s pretty monumental. It means he’s starting to flex, to bend, to open his mind to the possibility of change.
And then he zagged right back again; “I’m going to take my shower after breakfast EVERY SATURDAY.” But I’ll take this small leap in progress, this tiny step towards flexibility and change. Because I know how hard it is for him.
Right about now you’re probably thinking about the ice cream sandwich, and wondering if I let him eat it after he’d just downed a huge sundae. And I did. In fact, we all had one—even Henry the nudist.
It was our own zig-zag moment.