I used to say that only a Ph.D.-level child psychologist could babysit my son. This was before James was diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Disorder. My main worry was that a babysitter wouldn’t be able to withstand James’ crying. That he was vulnerable to abuse. Thankfully, James became less fussy and much more fun to be around. But I remained wary of sitters. With James, the stakes were higher. What was I supposed to do?
Finding the right fit
Also, was a diagnostic label — to which I was still adjusting — really necessary in order for the 75-year-old lady across the street to put James to bed while my husband and I went out to dinner? Autism Spectrum Disorder can be a hidden disability. It’s not always
apparent at first meeting, so a parent has a choice about whether or not to identify their child.
Turns out I probably should have said something. When we got home at 10:30pm, Ms. Veronica was sitting beside James’ crib, overhead light on, singing “Polly Wolly Doodle.” “Does this baby ever sleep?” she asked. “He won’t close his eyes!” James gave me a desperate look, as if to say, “Doesn’t this lady know how to turn out the light and leave the room?” He was tired of entertaining her.
Although less fussy, James still had trouble reading people and being read. Because of his autism, he didn’t communicate typically about important household topics: sleepiness, hunger, thirst, discomfort, anxiety, illness, among other basic requests. So this became my tactic.
Instead of using the A-word, I’d deliver a clear, focused message about what made James different. “You know how most kids yawn when they’re tired? Well, this one runs up and down the house like a greyhound.” In this way I graduated from Ph.D.-level babysitters to preschool assistant teachers, Teach for America people, and budding speech/language therapists.
That’s where I remain today, when my mom’s unavailable. I troll for sitters at James’ school, looking for people with whom he already feels comfortable, and who know him.
Knowing what to look for
Any sitter must be able to accept that some children are different, and that parents know their own children better than anyone else can. I avoid the Know-It-All, who tries to reassure me that she doesn’t need my instructions, that she’s perfectly capable of handling James, and that he’s not really so different from other children. But no matter how well James does with babysitters, the stakes are higher because of his autism. And that’s because, for children with autism and other special needs, major routines are all-important.
I’m not talking about which book you read before bed. I’m talking about how much and when they eat and drink, when they use the bathroom, when and if they take any medication, and when they fall asleep. A slight variation in any of these can result in such ills as: bedwetting, night waking, early morning waking, stomach upset, and fussiness for days afterward.
Fits like a glove
So that’s it. You don’t need an expert, but you do need someone who will keep major routines consistent. And that person is most likely to be someone you already know, or someone who has experience with special needs kids. When we get home from our wild night out, the kids are in bed, bellies full and bladders empty.
The next morning, they wake up happy, ready to share stories of the night’s adventures.
Just like we are.