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August 30, 2019

White Van

Shopping with an autistic boy who is seven years old and extremely curious can be tricky.
4 min read

Shopping with an autistic boy who is seven years old and extremely curious can be tricky. He’s too big to sit in the shopping cart anymore and tends to bolt hither and yon towards whatever piques his interest, without concern for his safety or other considerations, like having to pay for things on offer. For now I cope by using a special stroller wagon big enough to hold him and a few purchases, but I can still feel myself tensing up as we pass from the more controlled environment of our home into the wilds of retail terrain. Will my son melt down for some reason and make a scene in public? Will I be able to handle it physically? Emotionally? Actually get my errand done?

As we drove to the store the other day and I was inwardly bracing for impact, I noticed a white van on the road in front of me. Its rear windows displayed a decal advertising one of my favorite places to eat lunch (hint: the name of the establishment includes the word “chocolate”). Vaguely wondering what delectables the van might contain, I made my way towards my destination, a big chain store I usually find fun and practical in terms of what I buy there. Rain was pattering down softly as I parked, hauled the stroller wagon out of the car and got my son situated. I handed him a yoghurt pouch (his favorite shopping snack) and we were off.

My list wasn’t long and the store wasn’t crowded. And although my son stood up several times  in the stroller wagon and gestured vigorously toward various items, I was able to redirect him each time. I almost got the feeling that he understood that the things on the shelves were not his simply because he wanted them. Additionally, I found everything I needed without much fuss and before too long we headed back out to the car again, meltdown free.

Still, I found myself thinking: even when it’s easy, it’s still really hard.  Because of the stress of all the “what ifs” and the sure knowledge that I’m going to have to figure out how to train my son to walk alongside me in a store or leave him at home altogether in the very near future. One a seeming impossibility and the other a defeat, since I try to bring my child with me into the world whenever I can.

As I drove home, mulling unhappily over these options, the white van appeared in front of me again, like a roadside angel, announcing glad tidings that I couldn’t quite decipher. Like me, it was headed in the opposite direction now, yet still leading the way. I immediately suspected that the coincidence was supposed to speak to me, but it would take a little more time to suss out the message.

Only when I was lying in bed days later, in the few moments I have before sleep, did I fathom the white van’s meaning. I tend to feel tired and vulnerable in these last minutes of consciousness, mostly because I am exhausted by all the day has required and am apprehensive about the next day’s demands. The night in question I realized that if I allow it, my experience of parenting my son can become one long stretch of burden, quite devoid of the joy that strengthens human beings to run their respective marathons.

I suspect the lack of joy has something to do with open-endedness of autism. My son’s social and emotional deficits are like disruptive houseguests who show no intention of moving out any time soon. They’re in our face at every turn, reminding us that we could have had a different life­—one in which an articulate, well-adjusted child walking alongside a parent in public is completely taken for granted—but don’t.  I could easily draw up a list of difficulties that separate us from people who look as if they inhabit greener pastures, difficulties with no apparent end-date. I don’t know if my son will ever be free of the sensitivities, impulses and barriers that keep him from acting his age or communicating more intelligibly. Will he ever make friends? Be able to sit in a classroom with typical peers? Speak in full sentences?

If the reach of autism seems long, then the hands of hope can appear bound. As a special needs parent, I don’t know what I’m allowed to believe about my son without danger of being crushed when those desires do not materialize. There’s a voice in my head that tells me to prepare for a future in which my child stays frozen where he is now, never getting better as both of us grow older—he increasingly stronger and me increasingly weaker. On my darkest days, that seems the sure thing, the sensible basket in which to place my fragile dreams.

What chance has joy with a deck stacked so unfairly? Where the hardship is oh-so-solid and the promise of release, of all this work being worth it in the end, dissipates like smoke when the winds of worry blow?

What the white van said to me, softly, persistently, was that there is One who knows the end from the beginning. There is One for whom the antagonisms of autism are not open-ended, but are as contained as the waves of the sea, which recede with the tide rather than ravaging dry land. The white van also said that the One who bothered to “bookend” my shopping trip with so obvious a sign cares enough to convey his control over the whole of my heartache, from “still hard” realities to downright awful. Though autism’s power may recede in his view to a small thing, he gets how large it looms in mine as I face my daily battles.

Lastly, what the white van said was that the hand leading me out to pasture and back again holds good things in it. Blessings that I may not yet see, but are as real as the chocolate confections I’ve enjoyed at my favorite café. Or, as an ancient poet once put it: “Taste and see that the Lord is good. Oh the joys of those who take refuge in him.” (Psalm 34:8 NLT)

Need refuge from a long-term burden today? You are so not alone. Lift your eyes and ask the One who leads you to renew your joy, to show you that blessings still come in the midst of trial. If you’re not inclined to pray, share how hard your journey has been, even on the good days. Give someone the opportunity to love you in a tangible way, by listening. We could all use a little more love.

And lastly, be kind to yourself. Cut yourself some slack both ways, coming and going. It’s a difficult thing you do, and you’re doing it bravely. Heroically.

May you glimpse your own white van, leading you forward. And may the blessings it carries come to you quickly, so you do not lose heart.