Those lifeguards have it made...most days. As long as no one is being attacked by a shark or being sucked out to sea by a powerful riptide, they cruise the beach on their four wheelers, flags at the ready, letting beach goers know what lies ahead without ever uttering a word. The flags speak for them.
After a rough day last week, I decided there should be a flag system for autism. Various colored flags letting you know what autism has in store for your child that day so then you can decided if the risk outweighs the gain and you can prepare yourself to be ready for whatever lies ahead. These flags could help you see what might be bubbling and brewing right beneath the surface that you wouldn't ordinarily have planned for if the flag hadn't warned you.
Red flags. Serious hazards may pop up today and the currents are "dangerous" and very "unpredictable". You need to be on alert for sensory meltdowns, accidentally picking up the 2% Milk Velveeta Shells and Cheese instead of the Original, and the occasional matchbox car that might get chucked by your head. One red flag means, "look out". Two red flags means pack up, pull the covers over your head, thrown in your child's favorite DVD, open your favorite bottle of wine and call it a day.
Yellow flags. A cautionary alert. High currents that could knock you down, but, not quite a run the other way red flag kind of day. Even though it's not a red flag day, keep your guard up anyway. Yellow can change to red in the blink of an eye. It may be a rough day, so you should still "exercise extreme caution". Keep those matchbox cars hidden under your beach towel and check that Velveeta Shells and Cheese box twice before serving.
Green flags. Autism is always unpredictable, so even on a calm, clear day, hazards still exist. Keep a close eye out and always be ready for the unexpected meltdown, change in routine and the possibility of a green flag day quickly going to a double red flag day in a heartbeat. It happens.
Blue and purple flags. Your kid may be having a stellar day. No screw up with the Velveeta Shells and Cheese, his favorite shirt was clean and no changes in the routine are seen in the forecast and autism seems far off in the distance. However, just like sharks, jellyfish and other dangerous marine life can pop up without warning in the ocean, bullies on the school bus, the playground and in the classroom could be lurking, just waiting to sting. So, even on a green flag day, watch out for unforeseen dangers.
One day last week, in a matter of minutes every flag was flying after a troublesome, yet, not terribly menacing danger entered the water...the ophthamologist's eye drops. Yes, something that seems so harmless, so innocuous to most, proved to be quite scary and harmful to my boy and it left both of us needing to be rescued from the waters of autism.
Warning signs were everywhere that the yellow flag may soon be upgraded to red. Ryan's breathing increased, his hands and body became "twitchy" and both the "lifeguard" and I went on alert. There was shaking, yelling and cries of "do not". However, after a great deal of convincing, cajoling and bribing, Ryan allowed the most patient lifeguard (ophthamologist) I have ever met, to put the eyedrops in and that's when the red flag went up. There were tears, cries for help, head squeezing and vivid descriptions of how the eye drops were attacking his body. At one point, he became so still, so "checked out" that I was a little concerned that maybe Ryan had gone too far under the water this time and I wouldn't be able to save him.
Ryan eventually surfaced. He had just raised the red flag and closed the beach for the day. He was done. It was too much for his body to handle, so, Ryan closed the beach and went somewhere in his mind where he was safe from unforeseen hazards like burning eye drops and shut us all out. It took my big squeezes, my deep pressure hugs and my assurance that he was ok for Ryan to finally open his eyes and tell me, "don't stop squeezing, it's releasing some of the pressure that is boiling up inside my body". So, I kept squeezing, and cared little that a 125 pound, 13 year old boy climbed on my lap to help him regulate.
It was hard to watch. I have seen many meltdowns while swimming through these waters, but, I thought at almost 14 years of age, maybe, just maybe, Ryan's strokes had become stronger, his endurance greater, but, some things, even the strongest swimmer can't see coming.
I wanted to raise the red flag too. To call it quits. I too, was done and felt the waters were just too dangerous, the currents pulling us both under, but, I didn't, I couldn't, I won't. You see, I have something the lifeguards don't carry on the back of their, "let's predict your beach day four wheeler", but, it is something Ryan needs me to carry at all times, the white flag. Ryan counts on me to stick the white flag in the sand. To help him surrender to whatever onslaught of emotions or sensory overload his body succumbs to that day. As I sat holding him, giving him big, squeezy tights, I realized that I am Ryan's white flag. I warn people when he has had too much, when he needs to retreat, when he's done fighting, because in those moments when Ryan's body doesn't respond in the way he wants it to, when he can't reach the white flag, I stand up and grab it for him.
So, even on the days I want to put up two red flags, close the beaches and climb back under my covers and watch Netflix, I don't. While the two of us sat squished in that ophthamologist chair, I recognized that even in the roughest seas, I can't take the easy way out and raise the red flag of autism and close the beach for the day. No, my job is to carry the white flag for Ryan, always having it at the ready, until one day, he can raise the white flag on his own.
Just like the unpredictability of the ocean's currents, autism is an unpredictable force of nature too. There is no flag system in place to alert my son and me to the force of autism each day, so no matter what danger enters our waters and no matter how rough the waters get, we will battle together until the green flag flies once again.