Sniffing on the Ledge

There is a “strangeness” factor to autism. It manifests itself in any number of ways, unique to each child. That strangeness can make you wonder, make you cry and make you crazy. If you can manage to hold on to your sense of humor, it can also provide rare opportunities to just laugh your butt off!

Now everybody knows it’s insensitive to laugh about or make light of special needs people, unless you’re a member of the club. For that reason, I strongly believe that every organization responsible for diagnosing autism should also be required to maintain a list of “Laughing Partners”. These would be friendship ready, humor intact parents who also belong to the autism club, your new family. People you can laugh with when no one else could possibly understand.

Receiving your child’s diagnosis could go something like: “We’re so sorry Mrs. Smith but after careful review we’ve concluded that your child has autism. What we recommend is blah… blah…blah. And by the way your child with the autism diagnosis will exhibit some strange behaviors. Some of them are represented on the following chart. The chart they give out looks like a family tree where each branch indicates one of the specific challenges we face daily…Meet your new relatives. We suggest you get to know them.

Echolalia would be on one branch. That one can be a bit mortifying if your little one repeats what Daddy said as he changed the flat tire on the car. Another branch might say…licking. And for parents like me, there would be a branch called “SNIFFING.” The purpose real purpose of this family tree chart is to for find sympathetic partners to laugh with about our children. It was never to help you realize what’s coming next, because with our kids we never know that.

SNIFFING isn’t one of those strangenesses that present itself to you with a punch to your gut. It doesn’t smack you in the face when it starts. It sneaks up on you, leaves you a little befuddled, and makes you question your own perception. It’s often accompanied by the question “Did I just see what I thought I saw?” The first time I really took notice of The Sniff, I was standing behind my sister. Ann picked up my, then three-year-old autistic, son for a hug.

Ann was one of the few people Joseph would willingly allow to hug him so I was enjoying a rare moment of relaxed pleasure. As she lifted him up, he wrapped his legs around her waist, his arms around her neck and snuggled his face into her long blond hair. He rubbed her hair against his cheek as he often did with me, when out of the blue I heard a long, deep, and distinct…SNIFF! He even closed his eyes as to better the process and enjoy the smell. I didn’t say anything at first. After all, maybe he was just relaxing. Better yet, maybe my sister didn’t hear it. But then, just a few seconds later…SNIFFFFF! He did it again! There was no question about it. My son was definitely smelling my sister. We both laughed it off after I asked Ann if her shampoo affected all men that way.

Over the course of the next few years, I noticed that Joseph sniffed lots of things. Usually new things or things he hadn’t been around for a while. But more than anything else, he sniffed people. When he was three, it was kind of cute. By the time he was seven, it was just plain weird. Try as we might, we were unable to convince him that it made people uncomfortable when he tried to smell them. In time we came to understand that some faces were difficult for Joseph to distinguish, but all he needed was a quick sniff to identify a person. Along with that revelation came the understanding that Joe would most likely always be a sniffer. And as such, alienate him even more.

One day while settling into a much needed hug from my husband, I took in a deep breath, slowly smelling his familiar cologne, exhaled all that day’s frustrations and had a sudden epiphany!…A long, slow inhalation makes almost no sound at all. And Houston…we have a solution! All we have to do was teach the kid to be a stealth sniffer! If Joe could find a reason to stand a little closer or give someone a quick hug, and we could teach him to inhale slowly, and no one would ever be the wiser. So that’s exactly what we did.

Practicing and perfecting the “stealth sniff” provided enough good belly laughs for a comedy routine. From time to time we’ve had some minor setbacks. Ten-year-old boys don’t want other ten-year-old boys to hug them. We’ve had to make some adjustments, but it still worked. The bottom line is that autism is what it is. There’s an old Chinese proverb which reminds us that “It’s better to light one candle then to curse the darkness.” And if you can find a way to laugh while searching for the matches…all the better!

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