My son shredded the seat of our dining chair with his fingers in those first few weeks of virtual 4th grade. Ragged threads hung to the floor. My son, Sweetboy, is 10 years old and autistic. Reliving 4th grade via virtual school wasn’t how I had planned to spend my year, but he needed help. I sat there all day, every day, trying to help during classes and then with homework. It gave me an unexpected front row seat to Sweetboy’s school experience.
I watched him during the live classes. I know my Sweetboy’s eyes. They are the dark blue of comfortable, faded blue jeans. They light up with laughter, and they spark with mischief. They reveal an unself-conscious sweetness (thus, his nickname – Sweetboy). I watch his eyes, and I can see when he is thinking. I want to say to the teacher, “Shh! Don’t say a word! Wait… give him 7 more seconds… and he’ll answer you.” Other times I want to say, “Can’t you see he’s grasping to process what you said? He needs to hear the question again.” In those times I’d whisper to him to let the teacher know he was confused & to repeat the question. But, more often than not, I could see in his eyes that he wasn’t paying attention.
I told him to pay attention. I begged and pleaded with him to try to pay attention. I redirected his attention dozens of times a day. It was exhausting. I was tired out like an old analog tape that wears out from replaying the same bit over and over again. I thought: If I am worn out, then Sweetboy must be really worn out by this.
So, I did what I usually do in an uncertain situation. I started reading. I read about attention, about the overlap between autism and ADHD, about the efficacy and side effects of medications. Months after my first suspicion, Sweetboy had a prescription to treat ADHD.
Sweetboy was excited to try his new “brain medicine.” He asked me to film him taking his first dose. Then he sat down on the tattered chair and had a great day. Until he made a mistake on a multiplication problem. The teacher explained his mistake, and he did the next two problems perfectly. After class though, he erupted in frustration. “Why did I get that wrong? I took my brain medicine! I’m not supposed to get anything wrong now!”
I realized we needed to have a chat about Realistic Expectations.
I explained that the new medicine doesn’t mean he would never make another mistake, ever. But I also pointed out how he was able to pay attention and listen to her explanation.
It got me thinking about realistic expectations. Today is New Year’s Eve. Nearly every year, I make some sort of resolutions. I usually call them Goals & Plans. “Resolution” sounds like an endeavor doomed to fail, something to quit by mid-February. My vision plans are often ambitious and include subheadings and action steps. Sometimes I’ve accomplished my goals. Sometimes not. This past year, I did not.
2020 spawned its own set of goals and tasks that looked nothing like what I had planned. Helping my Sweetboy learn and thrive during virtual school while managing his covid-anxiety, staying healthy, and researching ADHD – these became my new, overwhelming goals. I did accomplish a couple other things. I learned how to take care of a kitten when we got Luna, my son’s first pet and my first cat. I completely revamped my website and sent out my first writerly newsletter, which then sat neglected all fall while I was in the virtual school trenches. Those had been among my original 2020 goals though, so I’m pleased to have checked them off.
What about 2021? I’ve wondered if I should bother making any goals, plans, intentions, vision plans, resolutions… whatever I call them, should I bother? Or should I put my head down and keep focusing on getting through today and then the next day? What realistic expectations can I have for 2021? After all, my son will still be home with me doing virtual school for the remainder of the school year. It will take quite some time for him to regain lost social skills, not to mention adjusting back to a school environment in the fall. For months now, he has been with me nearly every waking moment, so I foresee some separation anxiety in 2021. And even with the new vaccines, it’ll be quite some time before it feels safe to breathe easy. Quite some time for this anxiety to loosen its grip. Quite some time to muddle through our collective grief for all we have lost.
But here’s evidence of my cautious optimism.
A few days ago, I signed Sweetboy up for a week of summer day camp at Camp Royall. This is the awesome camp for autistic kids located about an hour outside of our town. I opted for the final week of the summer. Not in June or even July. But in late August. Let more time go by for widespread vaccination to occur before I send Sweetboy off to camp.
So, in the spirit of realistic expectations and cautious optimism, here are my
New Year’s Resolutions. Goals & Plans for 2021.
2021 Intentions is a more fitting title.
Write in a way that returns to my earlier days of writing, before specific projects and word counts and thoughts of submissions and publishing. Pick up the pen and fill my notebook with ink. Get back into the habit of writing, free of self-recrimination for not being a productive writer this past year. Ideally, it’ll help me find my way back to more focused writing.
I’ll admit, one aspect of this year that has been easier for me than for many others has been staying home and socially distancing. I’m so introverted, reserved, and happy with my own company and my family and a stack of books, that I lean towards hermitude. But still, loneliness has crept in. I suspect it’s difficult for people to get close to a reserved introvert like me. I don’t bond with others very easily. But I’d like to try. Reconnect with the couple of friends I do have and be intentional about turning at least a few of my acquaintances into real, tangible friendships.
The opposite of a stay home mandate. Even before the pandemic, my family didn’t travel much other than one or two yearly visits back home to Long Island to visit family. I’m a homebody (hermitude, remember?) But the intention to Go is more than travel (although I’d like to do some travel). I live in an amazing town. I love it here. But too often I’m content to stay at home because it feels like too much effort to go out. Go. Experience, enjoy, and explore my town and surrounding area.
I can’t exaggerate how many hours I’ve spent sitting this year. This may be a difficult one because the force of inertia is strong. I’ve got to move, whether it’s exercising in the living room during a break in classes, or taking more walks in nature, or more impromptu dance parties with Sweetboy, or parking farther away. I’m not going to beat myself up about the weight I’ve gained this year. But I do hope that being intentional about moving will lead to increased energy, better sleep, and a healthier, stronger body.
I started writing this post a few days ago. I was unsure if I’d make any goals for 2021 at all. As the pen filled the page with black ink, my intentions were formed in the scribbles. Writing is amazing like that. It helps me process. It clarifies my thoughts. It helps me envision a 2021 new year with realistic expectations tinged with cautious optimism.
Happy New Year to you and yours, and may we be rewarded for our optimism.