“It’s because it matters! You matter…..you need to be there…”
Jen’s voice is raised. We are both pacing around the house with no particular paths. Our discussion, which began harmlessly, has now escalated into an argument. We amble about the first floor of our house with no direction, attempting to walk off the adrenalin that is now starting to surge within us.
“I don’t know why I have to go. It seems like such a waste of time. Let’s be honest. It doesn’t help him at all”
“You don’t know that. It does help. He should keep at it….”
We are preparing our 9 year old son for his Saturday morning class. For the past 5 weeks, we have brought my son to a Social Skills class, held in a very unimpressive building in an equally unimpressive area of Warwick RI. The building is deep in an industrial park. As you drive through, you pass abandoned fields, decrepit buildings, and an unused railroad track on the way. The first time we find the Center, I state with mild surprise to my wife “Gosh, how would we anyone even find this without GPS!”
The classes are intended to teach my son the fundamentals of social skills. Since being diagnosed on the spectrum, we – like most parents – want to support him any way we can. Though he is high-functioning, his social interactions are, in a word, off. Though we coach and give him direction, there are still many opportunities for him to achieve even a basic level of polish in situations that require interaction. We decide to try this class, recommended to us by our doctor. After all, these are professionals. We are ignorant parents clouded by our own biases. I for one look at everything with regard to my son through the lens of love, and I’m certainly not objective or impartial. Vaughn, being an only child, would benefit from engaging with kids his own age. At home, he is drawn to solitary play: video games, YouTube videos, Jurassic World. Perhaps he may even make a friend there.
During our first visit, a swell of anxiety comes of over me as we enter the waiting room. Even after the colorful trek to the building, this introduction is unimpressive. The waiting area is exceptionally small, a very box-like room, with both parents and kids on top of one another. There is such a lack of space that I stand in the room in the only corner that does not have a chair or an end table. It reminds me of standing in an elevator. The registration process is disorganized, not just from the lack of room in the area, but with the confusing payment fee structure. All the parents pay different prices, presumably based on their benefits plans. As I pay for our session, it seems both unfair and mysterious. We pay more than anyone else.
As the class begins, Vaughn is instructed to go upstairs to the “play areas”. The staircase is dark, even menacing, and the parents are not allowed to join them. Though this logically makes sense, it nonetheless fills me with some anxiety. I am also struck by how loud it is with roughly 10 kids stomping up the stairs, talking, laughing, shouting down to their parents. My son is particularly sensitive to auditory stimulation, which can cause him to appear to shut down, though he is in fact very aware of what’s going on. This is really not the best environment for him, I think to myself.
Jen and I are instructed to either wait in the waiting room, or return in 45 minutes. “Don’t worry” the coordinator assures us “he’s in good hands. Trust me, there’s nothing we haven’t seen before”.
Instead of following these recommendations, Jen and I come up with a third idea. We decide to wait outside. The waiting area is too congested and the weather is nice enough for us to stroll around the industrial park. Plus, it will give Jen and I a chance to converse without anyone overhearing.
“I don’t really like it” I tell her once we’re out of earshot. “It seems really disorganized”
“Just give it a chance” Jen responds.
When the class is over, the children thud down the narrow staircase. I am waiting at the bottom, helicopter fashion, ready to embrace him. Vaughn is one of the last kids to leave the room. He is no particular hurry to see us and walks right past me.
As we drive home, Jen and I carefully ask him questions about the class, not trying to appear too intrusive. Though the class is built around play, we know there is deliberateness to every activity, an embedded lesson.
‘What did you like most?”
“Nothing.” My son says flatly.
“What did you do?” Jen asks.
“I can’t really remember”
This plays right into my fears. I conjure up images of my son, playing alone in a corner, ignored by the instructor in the chaos of 10 kids acclimating to a new environment. I have seen this before – on the playground, at the line-ups of the beginning of every school day, in gym class. I am assured that this bothers me more than him.
After 5 weeks, my irritation starts to get the best of me. When we huddle in the car after a class, Jen and I pump my son for more details: what did you do? What did you think of that activity? Have you made any friends? My son is unreliable in his recounting of events that took place only minutes ago. He is reluctant to share much, though this is typical for him. I’m not sure if this is his deliberate attempt to move forward past something he really didn’t enjoy, or a more focused attempt to keep us in the dark. Either way I don’t like it.
As we enter the car for the sixth visit, the conversation between Jen and me has now gotten quiet. With Vaughn in the car, we no longer discuss the merits of the class in front of him. This violates a code that Jen and I swore to early in our relationship, no arguments in front of him. And if there is disagreement, we never raise the volume in our voices.
It is a beautiful June morning and I crack the window for some fresh air. Staring out of the passenger side, I am struck by Jen’s words – “You matter. You need to be there.” There is something powerful in the first two words – you matter. Isn’t this what we as fathers all want to hear? You matter - you make a difference. I would suspect that these two words are more powerful than the three words we all like to hear – I love you. You matter. As we turn onto the highway, I rest my left hand on Jen’s knee. I am now on board, the validation has swept over me with its warmth. You matter………nothing could make me happier.