It starts the same as every other time: biting his fingers. Soon Baby Bee is shaking, screaming and flapping—all the usual things associated with a meltdown. I can handle all this. Staying calm during trying times is my specialty for whatever reason.
I am doing my best to intervene without escalating. It’s a tricky balance but we always manage it, even if we often ride the line. The meltdowns have become so commonplace that I sometimes go into autopilot mode and let my mind wander a little to our early days when we knew Baby Bee had some challenges but were uncertain of their origin (ASD). Today, I recall the shocked look on our occupational therapist’s face the first time we told her that our then-8 month-old would try to bite his stomach when he got upset but his poor motor planning and weak core usually subverted his efforts. We thought it was almost funny, in the embarrassed, worried sort of way that some parents in denial do. He wasn’t actually hurting himself so he was probably fine, right?
Baby Bee's finger biting turns into tearing at the insides of his cheeks which gives way to digging his nails into his legs and scratching his body. He’s flailing now, pounding his fists on the ground, trying so hard to be okay. Suddenly the screams are so loud I can’t think. My intervening touch has triggered him further, pushed him over the edge. I’m not on autopilot anymore. I am sitting on the floor, willing my mind to stay shut. Panic is banging on the door, worries are trying to break the windows, and dread so deep it’s transformed into nausea is seeping in all the cracks. Because it’s happening. The very thing, which we’d always said wouldn’t happen was happening. He’s crossed the line. He gathers momentum and slams his 99th percentile head on our hard wood floor.
I am frozen in time, stunned and flooded with emotion.
I wish he would throw a toy across the room the way I’ve seen other frustrated toddlers work through their emotions.
I wish he would grab the vase on the shelf behind him and smash it to pieces, the way raging characters on television are so apt to do.
I wish he would hurt me instead.
I wish anything besides this.
A cry escapes me and I’m pleading with him as I scoop him into my arms. He manages to slam his head on every hard surface we pass, using my body as substitute when nothing else is in reach.
“Baby Bee. Hurt. Head.”
It’s not a statement of fact, despite the bruises I already see forming on his tiny body. He says it in the same matter-of-fact yet desperate way he demands to “eat food” or be “all done.” It’s a spoken urge, an explanation of what he’s trying to do, narration of intent. My sweet son has turned agonizingly inward in his dysregulation.
I will my mind to be still, to find the calm space I’m so adept at occupying in trying moments. I bribe myself with every soothing idea I can think of even though I know none of them are true: that this is a one-time event; that it’s a phase; or that all kids do this. None of it works. His eyes beg me to get him out of his body. The best I can do is safely place him in the padded pack and play. I dim the lights, and step away knowing that even the intensity of my presence is too much for him right now.
And then, I call my Dad and cry. My Dad wants to fix it. He’s talking about medication (“For me or for the baby?”, I ask, only half-joking), he’s asking about behavioral therapy, grasping at anything to help me solve the current crisis.
“Thanks Dad. That’s not what I need right now,” I’m surprised to hear myself say the words. “I just need you to listen. To hear how hard this is.”
Which he does.
He quietly acknowledges my helplessness, my fear and desperation in a beautiful way that means more than all the words or fatherly advice in the world. In a way that reminds me how fortunate I am to have this loving connection in my life. In a way that reminds me what it means to be someone’s child, suffering but secure in the comfort of a parent.
I hang up the phone and take a deep breath. I find the strength to stay grounded despite the heartache inside. Slowly, I crawl into the bedroom and sit nearby, mostly hidden but still available. When Baby Bee is ready, I take him into my arms and rock him gently. I let my tears fall on his own soaked cheeks, silently vowing to stay present for as long as he needs—now or in 30 years--even if there isn't a single thing I can do otherwise to make him feel better. “I’m here, Baby Bee; I know this is hard,” I say aloud, knowing now that staying present for the pain of your child is the hardest work required of all parents—ASD or otherwise.