There was a time when I considered Andrew’s arm flapping to be a maladaptive behavior; a piece of the autism puzzle that needed to be solved and put in its place.
I worried that those wild flailing arms would be one more reason he would be misunderstood and judged by the world, so I made it my mission to subdue my son in exchange for what I believed to be the greater picture: acceptance by others.
It didn’t matter where we were or what we were doing, my response to his flapping was always the same:
“Quiet hands, Andrew.”
Then one day, as we were standing in front of the Pacific Ocean, I watched as Andrew stood along the shore, his eyes transfixed on the waves, and I slowed down long enough to pay attention to that flap that was a trademark symptom of his autism diagnosis.
That’s when I realized his flapping wasn’t a symptom; it was a language:
“Mom! Did you see that wave?! It was so awesome!”
“Look mom, another one!”
“They just keep coming!”
“I love the ocean!”
“I’m so happy here. Nothing hurts, nothing else matters. It feels like home.”
“Thank you mommy, for bringing me here; I love you.”
My non-verbal son was speaking to me and for the first time I was really listening.
And it was beautiful.
I haven’t uttered “Quiet hands, Andrew” since.
See, Andrew’s flapping isn’t the problem and it’s not something that needs to be “fixed.” What needs to be “fixed” is the way we view differences in our fellow human beings. I realize that as Andrew’s mom my job is to pave the way for his continued success and I take that responsibility very seriously. My little boy spends the bulk of his days immersed in one therapy or another, working triple time to acquire just a fraction of the skills you and I and the majority of society master without a second thought. From learning to hold a toothbrush to remembering the importance of “keeping our hands to ourselves,” each lesson is an attempt on Andrew’s part to accommodate the world around him.
Yet as parents, well-meaning friends and invested professionals, it’s easy to lose sight of the fact that we must spend just as much,-if not more- time striving to meet the needs of our special needs community. If we all invested just a small percentage of the energy our kids put forth in their daily efforts to fit into our preconceived notions of what “acceptable” is to accommodating them, I guarantee you there’d be fewer meltdowns, sensory overloads, and “Quiet hands,” commands.
The way I see it, our world could use a little less judgment and a whole lot more hand flapping. The kind of hand flapping that transcends suffocating societal norms, the kind of hand flapping that’s a language all its own, the kind of hand flapping that makes this mom believe her son is just a few flaps short of taking flight.