When mama goes away, the kids don't always want to play. Sometimes they're upset and distraught, though they may not even realize it.
In the seven years that my son has been on the planet, I have been lucky to be (mostly) around. Working from home, I never suffered the cruel, sudden separation that some moms have to go through when they head back to the office.
And I counted my blessings. My son always parted ways easily for drop-off activities and later, school, safe in the knowledge that I would be back in a few hours to collect him.
But life happens. Recently an out-of-town funeral called me away for several days. I didn't want to pull him out of school. The upheaval would be too much, so I left and my little guy stayed behind with daddy. A boys weekend. It was exciting for them, and my husband had a list of fun things planned for them to do together. I wasn't concerned in the least.
Almost immediately after my departure, though, my son got preoccupied with a new project - not unusual since he's in that industrious phase and is forever creating his own little books. Except this time felt different. He started creating labels for the objects in our home. My hubby mentioned the Project to me over phone, but it wasn't until I got home that I realized the extent of it.
My son had labelled everything - from pillows and drawers and lamps, to his dog! There were literally labels in every corner of every room of the house (yes, even the bathroom).
Though exasperated, my husband didn't stop our son in his tracks. And while the labelling bordered on obsessive-compulsive behaviour, he saw that the Project served a function: it was helping my son cope with the anxiety he felt during my absence. It gave him a feeling of control at a time when his routine had been disturbed.
I realized this when I came home and my son gave me a guided tour. I admit I was taken aback by all the labels. I complimented him on his handiwork, and we agreed that we would gradually remove the labels - one room each day - leaving his bedroom for last.
Kids feel so much anxiety. Even older kids don't always have the means to fully grasp or express those hard feelings. Yet they are more resourceful than we imagine. They find ways to cope, and even though those ways may look odd, we shouldn't necessarily discourage or undermine them.
At bedtime that first night back, my son told me how much he missed me. I snuggled with him for a long time and carefully removed the "pillow" label.
It's that time again. April has reared its head, and I'm wondering what to say about autism that hasn't already been said. What could I possibly bring to the table, as a parent, that will make the unaware more aware?
Then I realize I don't have to say anything at all. A 13 year-old girl has summed up what you need to know about autism more eloquently and succinctly than people more than double her age.
Plus, who better to ask about autism than someone who is actually autistic?
Bethany Hiatt, who describes herself as an an "aspiring journalist/fighter for autism acceptance," published a fantastic article in her school magazine - and it has been shared widely since.
In "Let's Talk About Autism," Beth describes some core challenges experienced by individuals with autism - from sensory overload to social mores and poor motor skills.
"We are the children that run with a gait, who are always picked last for the team, whose handwriting ranges from scruffy to illegible. The worst thing is, we are not often given help for this. As autism is known as an invisible disability, people think we are not trying hard enough, children laugh at our mishaps, we feel left out and like a failure on many occasions."
But she also highlights the many gifts autism can bestow.
We live in an age in which there is a national day for everything under the sun. Schools give a lot of airtime to social causes and campaigns. We have an influx of movies and TV shows and books and Broadway plays about quirky kids.
Yet sadly, when it comes to hard, practical knowledge about autism, we are still coming up short. Communities need educating. Teachers, medical staff, police officers need special training. Watching Rain Man no longer cuts it.
So if you want to be aware, truly aware, don't simply wear blue and call it a day. Show your awareness through your actions all year long:
"Try to make a safe space if somebody with autism is on edge at a party. Gently nudge them if they say something wrong. Pick them for your team if playing sports. Even smiling and saying hello in the corridor. Small gestures matter. Often, they can speak louder than words ever could."