The happiness quotient


Parents go through a range of emotions when they realise their child’s disability, whatever it may be. But everything has a silver lining, says R. Priya, whose son lives with borderline Asperger’s. Her son has taught her to take life a day at a time and be happy, she says.

Our bathroom at home has apart from sundry toiletries, little bottles of different, coloured liquids. I dare not tamper with them though they occupy precious real estate. Coloured liquids? If my nine-year-old read this, he would indignantly correct me, “These are magic potions, mama”! A lot of effort has gone into making these, er, potions. The blue one is a mix of various inks sourced from decapitating a number of ballpoint pen refills and also some soap water. The green one I suspect and hope (!) is some green paint along with some liquid soap and toothpaste. To my son, each of these represents some hours of testing various colour palettes and coming up with the winning mixture. Who am I to disturb these wonders of alchemy?

My son has proven me wrong on so many things that if he wants his magic potions to be left undisturbed till the end of eternity, that’s exactly what I will do. I am not about to question his wisdom. His wisdom is infinite. Who says that paints and toothpaste and soaps and yes, perfumes are intended only for their specific, boring purposes? He once told me, as a very tiny tot, “I just want to laugh and be happy”. These experiments of his make him happy. So there.

My son has been different from the word go. He met all his developmental milestones with flying colours, but insisted on doing things his own way. He could very well recognise his alphabets as a three-year-old, but would show them to me by contorting his body! One can imagine his little figure twisting up to depict a C or a Y. But in my haste to make sure that he was on par with his peers, I ignored these mostly and used my blinkered vision to insist he put pencil to paper. The completely insensitive playschool he went to also insisted on the same. In fact, they once called me for a meeting, where they gravely informed me that he wasn’t really getting the phonetics! He was barely two and half at that time! My regret? Instead of laughing in their faces, I pushed my son hard to ‘excel’. But no one could dispute that he was well-spoken. I remember his Jr. Kg. teacher telling me how he turned to his desk partner who wouldn’t speak, and said matter-of-factly, “I think he has lost his voice!”

His fantasy land
He was and still is, often in his la-la land. As a toddler, he insisted the swimming pool was full of sharks and whales which he had to battle. The sticks in the garden were easily turned into various weapons with which to protect everyone. But most people who spoke to him, exclaimed over his speech. ‘How well he speaks’, is something we heard often.

But being in your own world has its own repercussions. As he grew, and while around him, his peers were avid participants of organised games and sports, mine only wanted to play ‘chor police’, ‘sword fight’ and ‘let’s find the owl’ games. Often, he was shunned by his peers for disrupting their games. He wanted to be in the company of kids, which child wouldn’t? But since he wasn’t much interested in following rules, he ended up disrupting.

In the time-honoured way of people who like to isolate anyone even remotely different, my son was quite often bullied, called ‘dumb’ for not following the rules while playing sports like cricket and football. It would break my heart to see him playing alone, though truth speaking, he seemed just fine by himself, looking for owls in the garden corner and writing about the same. Each day differed though. There were some days when the others played unstructured games and he would come home glowing with happiness. Each evening that I watched him go down, I marveled at his enthusiasm and eagerness. Never mind that he could be badly isolated and rejected. Going down to the garden was a given. I also marvelled at his ability to remain so positive and happy in the face of such antagonism. While playing with his peers made him happiest, he was almost equally happy playing with much younger kids. Everything was a journey of discovery. A small pebble with a smooth surface could excite him as much as a Luke Skywalker light saber. He managed to convert at least 4-5 kids into fans of Star Wars and now, Minecraft. I thanked the higher powers for giving him the temperament to live each day as it came.

Seeking help
Yet, we sensed, he needed some help. His academic record was never great, despite his obvious intelligence and knowledge. We decided to seek professional help. A clinical edu-psycho analysis finally suggested that he could be experiencing borderline Asperger’s Syndrome, which is part of the Autism spectrum. He was recommended Occupational Therapy (OT).

We learnt that Asperger’s affects the social skills of a person, their interaction with their peers and society, and can cause low self-esteem due to constant isolation and lack of friends. Since they aren’t very good at following instructions, kids experiencing this are often scolded in class and don’t do well in assessments, further bringing down their confidence. We shared the diagnosis with our son’s school, which fortunately, has very empathetic and experienced counsellors. Our son’s counsellor spoke to his class teacher and put in place certain rules which would help him in class like being made to sit in the front, where there is less distraction, writing his assessments separately, repeating of instructions and so on.

He was and still is, often in his la-la land. As a toddler, he insisted the swimming pool was full of sharks and whales which he had to battle. The sticks in the garden were easily turned into various weapons with which to protect everyone.

Simultaneously, we started his OT too, which focused on exercises to tone his body, making him less fidgety as also listening, interacting and following instructions, one of the most critical elements of group play. We can already see this bearing fruit. He is learning to forge his way in groups, even where there are bullies. He tries to win over at least a few friends by talking to them about Minecraft or carrying some sweets to share. When he brings his friends over on a weekday to play on the ipad, I never have the heart to remind him that it is not Sunday ipad day. I just quietly hand over the gadget with a strict reminder about time.

Perversely, I feel happy when I hear him expressing indignation to a friend or arguing about which game to play. I feel he is finally learning to negotiate his way around, instead of being summarily thrown out of play groups and taking it in the chin. Having said that, even today, he is often alone in the garden. He seems quite fine with that too.

My learning
The one big lesson I have learnt through my son is – being alone is fine! The dictum of ‘love your own company’ applies not just to adults, but it applies to young kids too. Any kid who can spend time on his own, can amuse himself for an hour or two without resorting to crankiness, is a star kid. The grandmother of one of my son’s playmates expressed shock and horror at my son playing on his own. She labeled him ‘a very lonely child’. I was taken aback. My son, despite all his travails, has always been happy and full of beans. I replied to her that if he can spend time on his own, he is sorted, an answer which didn’t seem to satisfy her!

Life will throw various adversities at us. Perhaps in my son’s case, the bullying and rejection by his peers, has taught him something. Or perhaps it hasn’t. My son is not a robot. I know that he is hurt by some of the behaviours. But he lives one day at a time. A gift of his Asperger’s I think. He doesn’t share many of his concerns with me. But when he shares his joys, more infrequent than I would like, I realise how the presence of injustices are left unsaid.

As a mother, it has been a pain in the very soul to see my son struggle. But finding help for him has not just helped him, but has helped us to see his seeming ‘disability’ in a truly positive light. Also, he shows us everyday that happiness can be sought in the most mundane situations and events. You don’t have to wait for happiness to come to you. You can make it happen, any day, any moment, and everywhere.

R. Priya

R. Priya is a freelance journalist and a proud mother to a child with borderline Asperger’s. Her son has taught her to live life one day at a time.