Dear Jacob,

This is it: the last month of FOUR. You’re really excited for your birthday, and we’re making plans for a St. George and the Dragon day. You aren’t going to believe what we have in store for you beyond that, though. Planning birthdays might be my favorite part of motherhood…

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This month you’ve shot up. Those size 6 pants I bought for you in September, and then worried that they might not be useful because of how you were swimming in them? They’re on their way to looking short. You’re growing up so much, and I’m proud of how strong and capable you’re becoming. I love that you’re becoming interested in and confident about your body, too. You inherited your body awareness from me, which would be better put “your absence of body awareness” so it tickles me to death when you get excited about your ability to jump and run and do the very beginning steps of a cartwheel. Watching The Incredibles was a big part of this, I think, because you became fixated on Dash, and you spent the next couple days tearing around the house at break-neck speeds. I could see that in your minds’ eye, your feet were actually spinning fast enough to suspend you over water, just like Dash.

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We’re having a lot of conflicts right now over choices, and I think Tuesday’s was particularly poignant, a good vignette of where we are these days. You fixate on one specific thing and make enormous claims about how it’s the only thing you like and the only thing you want to do. So Tuesday we were driving back from a friend’s house, where you’d had lunch while I went to the doctor. It was a disgusting, rainy day, and a busy one for me. You asked if you could watch Thomas the Train and I said yes, excited for the 45 minutes of quiet I’d have to eat lunch and put away groceries before another friend arrived to play. Once you were finally ready (after doing the extra chore you were required to do because of your failure to listen and obey when I told you to put away your coat and boots and go potty) I had a horrifying realization: The remotes had been banished to our Lenten “give up” box. Each week this season we’ve been talking about a different aspect of Lent and this week’s was fasting, so on Monday morning we filled the box with favorite things that we would do without. Spirits were high.

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A day later it didn’t seem so fun. I thought about making an exception but I had this sense that to honor our commitment would be a huge object lesson for you in what Lent is all about. So you cried and I held you and you said your angry things about how you wish it wasn’t Lent anymore and you wish it was only Advent, Christmas, and Easter and never Lent and how you didn’t love doing anything else but watching Thomas the Train and how you don’t like waiting. And I taught you an important part of the Christian life: lament. I encouraged you to say all those things to God and I told you that’s what lament means. That’s what it feels like. I told you that the point of Lent was to make room in us for lament and that it was just right this way. I told you for the millionth time about how the world is broken and how we are waiting for Jesus’ coming (just like we are waiting for Easter) for it to feel happy all the time, no more lament. I let you have your lament, but as it moved from emotional reaction to chosen rudeness I started to redirect you, and so you learned a few more concepts about the Christian life.

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I explained that while we are waiting for lament to be over we pass the time with work. We do things. We don’t just sit in the ash heap forever. I told you that the world is full of good things we CAN choose, even on a rainy winter day in Lent with no remotes, and I started to list them off. You rejected them all, still claiming that “the only thing” you like is Thomas the Train.

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So I explained to you that being unwilling to work while you wait, to change the subject on yourself, is called self-pity, and there is no way to be happy while slumped in self-pity, so, once again: you needed to choose something to do, something to enjoy while you are waiting for the kingdom to come (cue Rain for Roots song).

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And then I explained about choice, and it was amazing, how obvious it was, even to you: God put Adam & Eve in the garden and he gave them a zillion beautiful trees to eat from and then he said “Not that one.” And Adam and Eve, they said: “But the ONLY thing I will EVER like is THAT ONE!” And I swear they must’ve made your exact grumpy face. And so they ate it. And you knew how that story ended and it made just a bit of sense to you and so, rather gloomily, you started inching toward choosing to build a train track.

And that’s a good window into how your world is going these days. Lots and lots of learning about choices and about not getting your own way.

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You’re also learning about being a follower, and this is rising to the surface as some of our primary language right now, because we can see it’s your primary need, and an umbrella over a whole set of struggles you’re having, like bullying Meredith or manipulating or arguing with me. And you’re learning about ways you’re never allowed to use your voice: ways that seek to control someone else with your tone (“Please say those exact same words in a voice that isn’t trying to control me.”) or that reveal that you don’t possess a shred of respect for your sister. (The latter are the times you end up in your bed, uninvited from play as long as you think it’s OK to make someone feel like crap with your words. (cue another Rain for Roots song).

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I’m excited for you, for how you’re growing and learning and developing. It’s a lot, a lot of work, a lot of struggle. But we see you rising to the occasion over and over again, if not always. Daddy & I had the great delight of expending 3.5 hours all on you this past Monday as we had finally been scheduled with a specialist we’d been referred to almost a year ago. We’ve had concerns most of your life that you might be on the autism spectrum, and we knew we would rather have the wisdom afforded by awareness than just to assume that everything is normal. You have been an inordinately difficult child since your second birthday, and the work we’ve put in has seemed disproportionately enormous compared to the progress we’ve made. So after a conversation with your pediatrician she offered to refer us to the pair of physicians (one a psychologist, one a developmental specialist) who handle these sorts of questions.

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I’m so glad we did this for three reasons:

First, we had a ball with you. You were tickled to death at finding yourself alone with the two of us with our full attention, as we read Dr. Seuss books in the waiting room, the 1:2 ratio feeling positively luxurious. We just sat back and observed you for three hours, and the chance to do so was such a gift to us. We saw so much beauty and wonder. We were amazed at you. Your strengths were shining and it was so fun to see. And then we were almost in tears laughing as we watched you interact with the doctors, telling them things with your own voice and perspective that were downright hilarious. We felt nervous when the doctor asked you to draw him a person, having never observed you doing so before and being aware that drawing isn’t necessarily one of your things. You were meticulous and anxious in your approach but finally there it was: a guy with a head, four pin-prick facial features, a belly, and sticks for legs, arms, and feet. Later we were all laughing when you drew something of your own imagining and held it up for us to, see, a collection of lines and curves. “Do you know what this means?” you asked us. “It means NO PARKING.” And sure enough, there it was, a circle with a P, and a line through it. Later when you repeated to the doctor our remark that upside down it might mean “No dogs” this unexpected suggestion just about derailed him. He thought you were hilarious.

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So there was that sheer fun of celebrating you. There was also the diagnosis. In their words “Given your young age and the many strengths you already have it does not seem appropriate to locate you on the spectrum at this point.” That was a satisfying answer to four years of private worries.

Finally, there was the clarity and the strategy the whole experience afforded us, as we sat down to definitely articulate what our concerns were. They boil down to three main categories: anxiety, distraction, and poor social behavior. So I’ll give you my take on these three things for what it’s worth.

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Anxiety: I’m already finding it’s helpful to have named it, and now to have named it to you. The very next day (the same day as the Lenten object lesson) the occasion arose. I dropped you off at our friend’s house and dashed back to the car in the rain. I turned around and saw you screaming in wild terror at the door and I realized I’d not said goodbye. This was only an oversight because you were off being distracted. But the last few weeks goodbyes have been a point of great anxiety for you and you’ll often offer a long litany of final greetings before you feel closure. (Did I mention distraction?) You were in full-on panic attack, so I held you close and helped you calm down before I said goodbye. We don’t want to label you, but we are finding it useful to help you identify yourself as an anxious person, because it gives us a way to talk about what is a big deal and what is not, and it allows us to offer ways to handle anxiety, like deep breaths to counteract the adrenaline rush or like today when I suggested that you stop asking questions about why the elevator doors at the library had closed before I had entered with you (leaving you momentarily alone) and focus on feeling thankful that I had opened them and confident that you knew what to do if that ever happened again.

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Distraction: I’ll be honest, I don’t feel like I have a clue what to do with this except wait it out and compensate for it. I expect at the root of it is simply that you are incredibly intelligent and constantly focused on your own inner world of smartness. I expect we are going to see you shine and thrive as you get to school age and begin exploring whole worlds of maths, sciences, history, language. I can’t wait to see this all happen. And I’m content with the thought that you are going to be brainy like your dear uncle (my sister’s husband) who can’t seem to make it to the grocery store to buy a bottle of water without needing a bit of hand-holding. The man is brilliant and awesome and loved, and that’s enough. This doesn’t mean I intend to leave your wife in the lurch with a man who can’t keep track of his own needs, but it does mean that I have a lot of work to do for and with you to get you to a place of relative life-competence.

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Social behavior: This was the one that we most benefited from discussing with the psychologist this week and the area where I think our approach to you is going to change the most. We’ve identified you as an introvert since the first few months of your life, and we’ve honored that and played to your strengths. We give you lots of time alone. But that means that you are not getting practice at interacting with people and not learning as much as you need to learn, since none of it comes naturally to you. She advised us to seek out opportunities for you to be in social situations and to be closely present to coach you along the way, and that this might help you progress away from bouncing off the walls in the presence of people and might help you grow in your ability to notice, to process, and to respond to other people’s emotional cues. (Case in point: we’re not clear on whether “Mr. Meany,” as it’s come to our attention that some of your friends at school call you, is a name given in fun or not. You describe the way you and your friends play chase, but we’re not completely sure they’re having as much fun as you are, and it’s disturbingly clear to us that you wouldn’t know the difference if it literally hit you in the face.) So we’ll keep painstakingly coaching you at home like we do (“Jacob, Merry is not having fun, can you see that?”) but we are also going to push you out of your introvert nest as much as possible for awhile so that we can help you overcome these weaknesses before they back you into a very lonely corner.

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We love you, buddy, and we are so insanely proud of you.

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Love,
Mommy

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