My 19-year-old with Autism had a “code brown” this morning. Not the type of code brown that involves poop, although we have had those too. This was a sticky, sugary, maple syrupy kind of code brown. Last night, she told me she planned to have waffles for breakfast. We’re working on developing flexibility and variety, so eating waffles for breakfast instead of her every-morning oatmeal was a welcome change. This middle-aged mama would have forgotten the idea by morning, but like many people with Autism, my daughter is loath to deviate from a plan. Sure enough, this morning as I headed to the bathroom, she urgently reminded me: “I’m going to have waffles this morning. I’m going to put syrup on the waffles.”
While I was in the shower I remembered that the plastic syrup container was almost empty and I pictured my daughter standing in the kitchen, flummoxed by the empty plastic bottle, because her problem-solving skills are only just starting to emerge. I recalled other times when she stood in her bedroom without pants because I forgot to put her clean jeans in the drawer, or took a shower without soap because I hadn’t replaced it with a new bar, or broken a necklace she was trying to remove, because she didn’t realize she could ask for help. By the time I got out of the shower, I was feeling very guilty.
But when I arrived in the kitchen, I found my daughter wiping up the counter with a single tissue. “Mom, some syrup spilled on the counter and I’m wiping it up. The syrup dispenser was empty so I poured more in,” she added. She had tried to fill the plastic bottle with the real maple syrup from a larger container. Only a small amount of the syrup actually made it into the bottle, and most of it was now dripping from the counter onto the floor by way the silverware drawer, but I didn’t care. At all.
Without any prompting, my child, who has trouble initiating, had the idea to make waffles. Without prompting, my child who has very few problem-solving skills solved the problem of no syrup. My child, who years ago never imitated anyone, knew what to do by imitating me.
As I wiped up the syrup spill, I thought about the fact that many of my daughter’s growth experiences and breakthroughs have come through independent experimentation when I wasn’t watching–just like it happens for most kids. I was also reminded that often, moments when we feel guilty for being a “bad mother” (as I berated myself for being while in the shower envisioning my daughter struggling), are often actually moments when a child gains agency and one is, in fact, being a “good mother.”
And whether this small victory of hers was prompted by Grade-A maple syrup or its tacky substitute in an empty dispenser, it is nonetheless very, very sweet.