Saturday, January 29, 2011

The Autism Gospel - of Owning My Shoes

....for Virginia, who asked for it:)

Autism has encouraged my own sense of style. When I’m truly being “me” my natural curly hair is flying in no less than 100 directions and the only make-up I wear is lip gloss. Business casual for me is cargo pants and flip-flops. If it is winter, I might wear my favorite pair of cowboy boots I got second hand at a thrift store accompanied by my ripped jeans. I can dress up. I actually clean up really well I’ve been told. But why bother? Some days are just a waste of make up. And who wants to make the commitment to get all “cover girl” when your kids spazzes out when you turn on the hair dryer?

So, whereas a lot of my friends have gotten all grown up and started dressing like respectable women of society, I remain resolutely unrespectable. My dearest friends know this about me. They don’t expect me to get prettied up or carry a purse (which I also loathe) when we go out to dinner. They know that “cute” is not a word that can ever be applied to my persona. Ever. They don’t try to “cute” me up. This is what makes them my friends.

Most of my clothes are given to me because I HATE to shop. I’d rather have elective surgery than go to a mall. It’s just who I am. My friends know this and don’t even think about inviting me to the Black Friday Shopping Day. They know I’d rather be home watching football and reading. Despite all indications to the contrary, I think I might be missing a chromosome somewhere.

Having an autistic kid has been a great excuse to get me out of some things I already hated doing. There – I said it. Now you know.

But in all sincerity, shopping malls are sensory minefields. The lights, sounds, smells, and crowds of a store are very difficult to navigate. Many times we have had to throw coats over our heads and take the perfume counter at a dead sprint because it “smells naked”. (I think that means that it smells like one might when just out of the shower, but who knows what Noah means sometimes.) I lose count of how many times Noah fell into fountains because the stimulation of the sound and smell of chlorine threw off his vestibular senses. And trust me, we make a BIG splash. Rounding off our “greatest hits at the mall” is the fact that Noah loves the silky feel of lingerie. Nothing like taking an autistic 9-year-old boy into the lingerie section for a sensory break. Sometimes I am even creeped out by us.

So when I needed new shoes for a wedding I was attending, you can only imagine my joy at taking Noah along. Rejecting the idea of a traditional mall, we went to a shoe store at an outdoor mall. I figured we would make less of an impression, there being fewer people to witness us and all that. But I knew the smell of leather was a trigger, so I put him in a large shirt that he could pull over the lower part of his face. So into DSW I go, accompanying Noah who looks like a terrorist or bank robber with his shirt collar pulled up under his ears and only his eyes showing. I remember opening the door for him and thinking, “let’s see if we can get in and out of here without hurting ourselves or anyone else”.

I was looking for black pumps. How in the hell was I to know there would be just over 30 varieties of black pumps? Who has the time to design all these shoes? I don’t want to tank our economy or anything but don’t we still need a cure for cancer or something? I sighed a sigh of exasperation as I walked the aisles with Noah in tow.

When I began trying on shoes, I let him lie prostrate over one of the benches in the aisle. Sometimes laying upside down and changing his horizon line can reboot his sensory input and give us a few extra minutes. I learned this little trick early on and would often encourage him to hang upside down at any opportunity if it gave me extra time to accomplish some task or another. Seeing the world upside down makes him feel better.

I had finally found a serviceable pair of shoes when I turned to find Noah gone. My heart lurched into my throat as I went into full panic. Quickly scanning the rows, I could not see him. But then I heard it – the “ooo-ooo-ooo” that characterizes our self-stimulatory behavior. I found him two aisles over sitting cross-legged on the floor and rapidly flapping over a pair of shoes. Dampening down my panic, I strode up the aisle to make our get away.

When he turned and saw me coming he jumped to attention and said, “Mom, I found them. I found your shoes!” In his hands Noah held the most vulgar pair of red, patent leather, spiked high heels I have ever seen. In my mind I could hear my grandmother commenting on the parentage of a woman who would wear these shoes in public. Only a woman of “ill repute” would even admit to having these shoes in her closet. And Noah thought they were the most beautiful things he had ever beheld.

“Oh, sweetheart.” I prepared him, “I just needed plain black. But thank you so much for helping me and doing such a good job of being patient while I was looking.

Then Noah said something that completely threw me under the bus. “But Mom. These are your shoes. You own these shoes Mom. They are beautiful-shiny. Just try them on. Please!”

What did he mean I owned these shoes? Was he questioning my parentage? Nope. The look of adoration on his face said that he thought these were the most stunning pair of shoes he had ever seen. To him, they were made for my feet. Tears were swimming in my eyes as I hastily looked over my shoulder to check and see if anyone from the church was in the immediate area . (You know they have radar on their staff because just order a beer in a restaurant and six elders walk in.) Secure that we were alone; I rummaged the shelf looking for my size. Sure enough, there was a pair of size 6s.

He began to flap excitedly as I slipped off my flip-flops and into the red high heels. When I had them on his face broke into a joyous grin and he loudly said, “Those are your shoes! You own those shoes! You own those shoes!” I checked the price and gasped! There was no way I was buying these shoes. But then he said, “Mom try them out with me. Can I have this dance?”

Suddenly I realized the in-store music was playing “Unchained Melody” by The Righteous Brothers. Noah stepped toward me and put his dirty little hand in mine and proceeded to slow dance with me in the aisle. He watched the shoes as we danced and repeated over and over again, “Mom, you own those shoes! So beautiful- shiny.” Hot tears ran down my face and into his hair.

In Noah’s eyes, I was the most beautiful woman in the world deserving the most beautiful and shiny pair of shoes in the world. Where I didn’t see myself as equal to these shoes, Noah thought they’d been made for me and me alone.

I am now the owner of a pair of red, patent leather, spiked heels. Every time I look at them I am reminded that someone thinks I am a “beautiful-shiny” lady worthy of attention getting shoes. The way Noah sees me is completely different from the rest of the world. My sense of style doesn’t bother him and he doesn’t categorize me because of it. He honestly thinks I am made to wear beautiful shoes, even though most days I wear flip-flops and my hair wadded up in a knot at the nape of my neck. Noah sees in me what I can’t even see.

I am at a point in life when I am trying to “own my shoes” in a lot of ways. Owning who I am means that I am at peace with my profession (or lack thereof at times). It means that I can smile at my wild hair in the rear view mirror and have serenity with my waistline. It means that my accomplishments, intelligence and appearance come second to embracing who I am. And that means knowing that I was made the way I am for a reason. I can only suppose the respectable woman of society might freak out if they had to completely suspend the use of their hair dryers, products and perfumes. Other women might long for a day at the mall to shop and spend their time trying on outfit after outfit. But that is not who I am.

For years I tried to fit that mold so that I could identify with people to whom I ministered and spend time with them. When that didn’t work, I just busied myself with work so I was unavailable during these social outings. Then I just isolated myself altogether and hated myself for not being more “normal”. I’ve had a hard time owning myself.

But at our house, normal isn’t even a setting on our dryer so I fit in here. I don’t care if I use double fabric softener in every load to make our clothes and towels extra soft to avoid sensory meltdowns. I don’t care that routines take precedence over spontaneity – I hate surprises anyway. It’s just fine with me that we need to watch the same movies over and over again. I’m not embarrassed that Noah wears the same outfit to church almost every week because, well, it is his “Sunday outfit” and if we don’t wear it, it might not be a Sunday. I’ve learned to own who we are.

Noah has coached me in many of the unseen mysteries of life, but perhaps his most influential lesson has been “owning” who I am – shoes included.

I love my racy red patent leather spiked high heels. I wear them with my ripped jeans. And I own them.