you can’t put on a coat while holding a lunch box

Editor’s note: I have done something that I don’t typically do here. I have changed some details of the scenario you are about to read. Although they have no bearing on the story itself, they are important in the context of Brooke’s privacy. That’s all. Carry on.


{image is a photo of Brooke at the zoo at age five, when she was in kindergarten.}

It was Saturday morning. Luau would be home from work soon and I was trying to get myself and the girls ready to go to my dad’s. Despite our best efforts, we were moving like the Keystone Cops in a vat of molasses. Efficient we were not.

I told Brooke that she needed to put away the art supplies that were strewn across her floor. More specifically, I said, pointing, “Honey, I need you to pick up the markers and stencils and put them in that container, okay?”

In response, she turned on her heel and, without a word, walked in the opposite direction.

“Brooke,” I said, my patience clearly running thin, “I need you to do what I asked, honey. We have to get ready to go so that we can get to Papa’s.”

She stopped and turned a quarter of the way around.

“I have this of first,” she said, looking down at her hand.

I followed her gaze and saw what I hadn’t seen before — that she was holding scissors. She had turned toward her desk to put the scissors away so that she could do what I’d asked her to do. And I didn’t get it.

Until recently, Brooke would not have been able to tell me what she was doing. Until recently, she would have panicked at the slightest whiff of my frustration and the anxiety would have choked any words that might have otherwise been available to her in its absence. Until recently, I would have thought that she simply wasn’t listening.

On Sunday morning, my dad and I were chatting on our way to the park with the boys. We’d laughed at his attempt to open the car door holding two cups of coffee. He’d said, “I used to say to kindergarten teachers, ‘Don’t tell kids to go get their lunch boxes, put on their coats and then line up.'”

I’d laughed. “Cause you can’t put on your coat when you’re holding your lunchbox.”

“Exactly!” he’d said.

“It’s so funny that you said that, ” I said. “Just yesterday I had one of those small moments that I always say isn’t really small at all.”

“I love that about you,” he said. “You miss nothing.”

“I miss a lot,” I thought. But I didn’t say it. No point trying to argue with a dad. Instead, I told him the story: how I had asked Brooke to put away the markers and stencils and how I’d assumed she either hadn’t processed or was openly defying the request when she proved me dead wrong. I told him that I was thinking that I wanted to write a post about it because it’s just such an important concept for all of us to understand. About how vital it is to dig past our first level of perception.

“Can you imagine how many times a day our kids go through that?” I asked. “I mean, think about it. A kid who can’t effectively say, ‘I’m trying to do what you asked me to do, but I can’t until I do this other thing first,’ with people who don’t take the time or even know to take the time to decode their actions, well, God, can you imagine how frustrating that must be? And so many of our kids spend their days in these intense, one-to-one situations where there’s this bizarre expectation of full and immediate compliance with whatever they’re told to do whenever they’re told to do it whether or not it remotely makes sense to them? How many times a day do we think these kids aren’t getting it when the ones who don’t get it at all is US? It’s just .. well, right?”

“Right,” he said, unable to suppress a hint of a smile. We drove in silence for a moment before he added, “You should write it. And put in the part about kindergarten.”






7 thoughts on “you can’t put on a coat while holding a lunch box

  1. I’ve been noticing this more often with my son. I repeat myself because I *think* he’s not processing, but in actuality, he has to complete something in his order so that he can do what I’ve asked. From reading your blog, I am trying to wait and give him the time to tell me…and often, he does, in his own words and way. Great post today!

  2. Thank you for writing this. This is a hugely important thing, and I think understanding it will help Brooke a lot. Everyone has times when they’re impatient or frustrated, of course, but if you can give her the benefit of the doubt about things like this more often, I think it’ll be really good for her. It certainly would have been good for me.
    You’re right, it is really stressful and frustrating to be treated as if you’re disobedient when you’re doing your very best to follow the rules. Not only does it feel like you’re being punished unfairly, but when you realize that people around you don’t understand why you do things, and sometimes even aren’t trying to understand, because they just assume you’re wrong… That really hurts.
    So much of children’s lives is centered on “follow the rules/do what you’re told = Good, disobey an adult = Bad”. When you’re little, having someone assume that you must be deliberately disobedient, and not even consider that you might be trying to follow the rules– it feels like they think you’re a bad person. Like they think you’re evil. Or at least, that’s how it felt to me.
    Situations like what happened to Brooke in this story are something I still struggle with as an adult. It’s taken a lot of work for me to be able to take any kind of criticism without feeling like I need to fall on my knees and beg forgiveness. I’m very glad that you understand this and that you’re writing about it, so that other autistic kids can have a better time than I did.

  3. I am a parent with one Aspie and one NT with anxiety, mood disorder and childhood depression. I’m also a teacher and last year I taught music in self contained classrooms to kids with varying degrees of autism. I’ve learned over the years that I give too many directions. My kids are grown and can speak up. Not all my students are verbal so I’m careful to break it down in class and wait. Always wait. In the fall I’ll have the same students so we’ll know each other better and get to more experiences.

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