Last week, I did something that I haven’t done in over 30 years. I took a bus.
Actually, I took two different buses. I was traveling with my son Noah to an autism program for adults that’s located about a half-hour from our house. It seemed like a perfect opportunity to teach him the basics of taking public transportation.
To say that it didn’t go that well is an understatement.
I had insufficient funds on my brand new fare card, and as people waited behind me in line, it seemed to take an eternity to dig up the right amount of cash for the ride. And then in my anxiety to sit down quickly, I didn’t stop to ask the bus driver if we were on the right bus. Which was a shame because even though we were on the correct bus, we were traveling in the wrong direction! To top things off, when we finally got close to our destination, I insisted that Noah pull the cord to signal the bus driver to stop — about four city blocks away from where we needed to go. We ended the ride with a long and humbling walk.
But the worst part of this experience was that I couldn’t give myself permission to be a beginner, to be OK with not knowing what to do. Instead, my anxiety grew with every mistake I made. The ironic part is that, as Noah’s parent, I have been in countless situations like that bus ride. When you have a child with autism, it seems like all the other parents of typically developing children know what to do. In contrast, you can feel so out-of-place and vulnerable.
Suddenly, I found myself thinking about Noah. Many times during that bus ride, I looked over at him and he was calmly looking out the window, usually with a smile on his face.
And I realized something: Here I was feeling undone by a single bus trip. In the meantime, Noah’s life is comprised of so many situations that must be mystifying to him. The rules of social engagement alone are so subtle and elusive. But somehow he takes it all in stride.
It made me appreciate what I can only call Noah’s grace. He is always entirely himself, just accepting where he is at each moment.
Life with Noah is going to offer me a lot more chances to act without the benefit of a rulebook. Each phase of my son’s life presents new questions and challenges, and I find myself beginning over and over again. But Noah shows me on a daily basis that it’s OK even if you don’t know what to do. He certainly doesn’t mind being a beginner. And, even more importantly, he teaches me that even when you don’t understand the rules, you may as well just smile.
Read more in Psychology Today