After a few days that were kind of filled with various activities for the kids, today was a pretty low-key summer day. I was working in my office and the kids were playing really well together. Lately they’ve been playing school quite a bit, which is a callback to Amelia’s younger days where pretty much anything we played…spaceship, superheroes, pirates, or whatever…quickly morphed into some kind of school interaction. For this iteration, they made good use of Erin’s office.
I was pleased that I had some space to do my work and that they were getting along so well and doing such a great job of entertaining each other. Amelia and Henry are really close and sometimes it’s easy to forget that being constant companions and playmates is awesome, and sometimes it isn’t. One thing I’ve seen a lot lately is just that one will want to play something and the other just wants to watch TV or do something on their own. It’s a sibling argument as old as time, and sure plays out here, too.
But there is also more to it. For one, Amelia is now 9 and having more of her own friends. For the first time we’re starting to see the gravitational tug toward her friends. When either kid has friends over, they generally involve their sibling in play, but Amelia now wants more solo time with her friends, which is totally understandable for her, and of course sad and disappointing for Henry.
And for Amelia’s part, she is such a kind, positive and fun-spirited person, it’s easy to overlook the fact that having an autistic brother is not always easy. Henry does sometimes like to play in very rigid ways or can be abrupt in deciding to stop. She is always so great with him, but Erin and I also recognize it can be difficult. Today we had one of those moments.
I heard the kids arguing because Henry had suddenly decided he didn’t want to play school anymore and wanted to do something on his own. Amelia stamped upstairs, emotional and upset. I asked her to come over and talk to me about it and she told me she was angry with Henry because he said he wanted to play one minute, and that he didn’t the next.
I told her that she was totally justified in feeling angry and I’m glad she told me. And I also explained that Henry is within his rights to decide he doesn’t want to play. Still, it’s OK to have feelings about it. Amelia got in my lap and I hugged her, and she started to cry. I could sense there were deeper things at play here, so I gave her a few moments and told her I was there to listen if she wanted to talk. She cried a little more.
“It isn’t easy, is it?” I said. That was all I had to say.
Through tears, Amelia said, “No, it isn’t.” We hugged and rocked some more and I did my best to validate her feelings. I told her that we know how much she loves Henry and how much Henry loves her, and we also know that as wonderful as he is, there can be challenges dealing with Henry sometimes. It’s common for the siblings of children with autism or other disabilities to either be overlooked or have it be taken for granted that they are “the easy one.” Erin and I try really hard to support her feelings and let her know it’s OK to struggle with this sometimes. We parents certainly do at times, and siblings sure can too.
Amelia finally told me that she felt really hurt because she doesn’t think Henry likes to play with her anymore. I told her I understood feeling that way, but pointed out all the times they have been playing together, knowing that Henry definitely loves playing with his sister. After a while, Henry also came upstairs, looking kind of grouchy and dour. I asked him what was the matter, and he said he was upset about Amelia being mad at him just because he didn’t want to play.
This is one of those tricky situations where the kids are upset with each other, and both is right. Henry doesn’t have to play and doesn’t need to feel forced to, and Amelia has every right to feel let down and angry for her game coming to an abrupt end. They talked a moment, and it was clear they both just needed a little space. Amelia said she wanted to spend a little time alone in her room, and after she left, Henry came over to me, still upset. I talked to him much the way I had to Amelia, explaining a little about how she felt. Before long, I was hugging and rocking with him too.
All this went down before 10am, and after a little cooling down time I had to take the kids with me to run some errands and go to my chiropractor appointment. Once we got in the car together, it was like none of that had happened at all. They both brought a bunch of stuffies along and were playing some imaginary game with them. After my appointment, the kids wanted to walk over to a pond near the doctor’s office and they were sweet as can be, admiring the geese and talking about what a beautiful day it was.
It is my hope that encouraging the kids to be open and expressive of their emotions and recognizing their struggles helps to clear out all those bad feelings and enable them to reconnect like this, with an even greater understanding of themselves and others. The problem with shoving emotions aside is that it leads to bitterness and animosity that only grows over time.
Our kids are still young and who knows what the future will bring. But at least for today I can say I’m extremely proud of their expressiveness, their inner strength and their emotional resilience.