Slugs and a Mother’s Joy — D.C. McAllister

 

I was in the kitchen cooking dinner when my iPhone rang. It was my son from college. I answered, and his face filled the screen, framed by gaming posters and a chart of the Periodic Table in the background. “Hi Mom,” he said.

“What’s up?” I asked a bit distractedly as I sliced a yellow tomato for the salad.

“I saw the first slug of the season today.” I glanced over at the phone. His green eyes sparkled. I smiled. “What kind?” I asked as I put down the knife and turned the stove off to keep the chicken from burning.

“Just a plain garden slug,” he said.

“Those are the Kerry ones, right?” I asked.

He rolled his eyes and shook his head. “Mom, don’t you remember? I’ve told you before. Kerry slugs aren’t plain; they have markings on their backs.”

“Oh, that’s right.” I grinned. I had remembered. I just wanted to hear him launch into a detailed discussion about various types of slugs, which he did.

My son has always been different. Interested in subjects other people aren’t. Concentrated. Withdrawn. When he was two, he didn’t run around wild like other kids. He’d sit in the grass, pull up a single blade, and study it for the longest time before picking up another. If a worm crossed his path, he’d lie down and watch it burrow into the soil. I remember him doing that one time on a cloudy day as raindrops fell around him. He didn’t even notice. When it came time to go inside, he’d sit alone in his room for hours, building the most intricate Lego creations without directions.

He didn’t make eye contact easily, except in rare moments when he felt comfortable. He didn’t talk much, but when a subject came up that he was interested in, he could go on and on about it, telling you details only an expert would know. At school, he didn’t play much with the other kids. When he did, they made fun of him. After a while, he just stopped trying and instead hung out in a corner of the schoolyard, following trails of ants.

I had always assumed he was just introverted, but in high school when relationships became more difficult, we took him to a psychologist and discovered he had high-functioning autism: Asperger’s. I didn’t even consider that the problem might be autism. I thought it might be depression, anxiety, or something worse.

When we first saw the doctor, I explained that there were times when I tried to have an important conversation with him, but he wouldn’t look me in the eye. If he did, it was as if he were somewhere else, unfocused and lost in his own world. I would get angry and frustrated as I tried to draw him out. Why couldn’t I get my son to listen to me—really listen? I told him to pay attention, to look me in the eyes when I was talking to him, but he wouldn’t. “I am paying attention,” he would say, his brow furrowed. He seemed genuinely confused.

It was then that I stopped being angry and became worried. He wasn’t being disobedient or disrespectful. Could it be that he was dissociative, that there was something else going on at a deeper psychological level?

There were other things I noticed too. When he was with other people, he didn’t pick up on social cues, and he would find things funny that others didn’t. He always seemed to be a step behind in social situations, out of synch with what was going on around him.

When he was 16 and started driving, he never knew whether he was speeding, and he would turn up the radio so loud that he couldn’t possibly hear anything else. Whenever I talked to him about it, he didn’t even realize what he was doing. He thought his driving was normal and that the music wasn’t so loud. It wasn’t until he wrecked his car (with no injuries, thankfully) that he realized there might be a problem, but even then he didn’t seem worried or upset.

I was afraid he was schizophrenic or had some kind of schizoaffective disorder. I was so stressed about what could be wrong, it began to affect my own health. I couldn’t eat or sleep. I was terrified. What was wrong with my son?

When the diagnosis of Asperger’s was finally made, I was both relieved and saddened. My son wasn’t schizophrenic, but he wasn’t normal either. And he never would be. What did that mean for his life? How would he do in college? Would he have a successful career? Would he ever fall in love, marry, have children? Could he find a woman who understands him, who loves him as he is? Would he be happy? Would he always be alone?

After the diagnosis, I struggled when I heard people talk about their perfect children. Their brilliance. Their success in sports. Their popularity. Their boyfriends and girlfriends. I didn’t begrudge them that. I was very happy for them and would never want them to experience anything other than the joy of their successful children. I didn’t even envy it. But it did remind me of something I would never have with my son. It touched on a sadness deep within as I had to adjust my hopes and my expectations to something different. Those adjustments didn’t come easily. Letting go of expectations and embracing new realities is a difficult journey—especially when it comes to our children.

That’s why I love slugs.

In the spring and early summer, the slugs would come out in the backyard. My son would go outside with a flashlight and watch them as they left their silver trails on the porch. There would be different kinds: the tiny brown ones, the garden slugs, and the bigger Kerry ones with their faint black markings along their backs. The really exciting ones, though, were the leopard slugs. They were long and fat and had black lines and spots on their backs just like a leopard.

My son would stay out there for an hour, watching the slugs as fireflies flashed overhead. On those humid evenings with stars brightening the sky, I’d sit with him and listen as he told me about slugs. What their family and genus were. How they have optical tentacles and sensory tentacles, and how their slime protects them from predators. We’d feed them lettuce and strawberries or even banana peels and watch them swarm over them, leaving pools of ooze.

One time there were probably 20 slugs on the back porch, and there we were in the middle of them. My daughter glanced through the open window and shook her head as she wrinkled her nose. “Gross,” she said. My son and I just laughed and kept feeding the slugs.

During mid-summer of my son’s senior year, the leopard slugs came out like they always did. I opened the door to find my son lying next to one as it ate a piece of lettuce. He motioned for me to lie down beside him. “Stay really still and listen,” he said.

I stretched out on the hard concrete and laid my cheek next to the slug, just as my son was doing. The evening was still, with a faint smell of rain on the breeze as storm clouds rolled in. I couldn’t hear anything, though, and moved closer until the slug was no more than an inch from my ear. “Do you hear it?” my son whispered, his eyes fixed on mine, attentive and full of wonder.

I did hear it. The faintest crunching sound. “I can hear the slug eating!” I said.

My son smiled brightly. “Cool, isn’t it?” I smiled back. “Very.”

We laid there for half an hour, looking at each other, talking, and listening to the slug. The breeze picked up and swirled around us, filling the air with the sweetness of gardenias, the freshness of newly cut grass, and the promise of rain.

I carry that moment with me always, like a talisman. It’s our moment. My son’s and mine. It’s when every unmet expectation and every fear fell away, and a world of understanding opened wide. In the blue shades of evening, with the sound of slugs crunching on lettuce, I stopped forcing my son to see the world through my eyes and I began to see it through his. And what an amazing world it is—one of insight, sensitivity, and wonder.

Now, whenever my son calls home to tell me he’s seen a slug, I know it’s not really about slugs; it’s his way of reaching out, of connecting in a way he knows I understand. It’s his way of saying, “Mom, I love you.”

There are 31 comments.

  1. Misthiocracy grudgingly Member

    D.C. McAllister: My son has always been different. Interested in subjects other people aren’t. Concentrated. Withdrawn. When he was two, he didn’t run around wild like other kids. He’d sit in the grass, pull up a single blade, and study it for the longest time before picking up another. If a worm crossed his path, he’d lie down and watch it burrow into the soil. I remember him doing that one time on a cloudy day as raindrops fell around him. He didn’t even notice. When it came time to go inside, he’d sit alone in his room for hours, building the most intricate Lego creations without directions.

    If this doesn’t strike me as being particularly “different”, does that mean that I am “different”?

    • #1
    • April 7, 2014, at 7:19 AM PDT
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  2. Blondie Thatcher

    What a wonderful story. You are a great mom!

    • #2
    • April 7, 2014, at 7:28 AM PDT
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  3. Merina Smith Inactive

    Denise, this reminds me of a very short story I read once describing two people on the porch watching a deaf child do exactly what you describes–reveling in the beautiful and intricate minutia of nature. At the end of the story the people on the porch say to each other, “It’s too bad he’ll never know the true joy of living!” You immediately understood that they were the ones who were missing out on the true joy of living. I read it years ago but it is still with me. I’m glad you and your son know the true joy of living.

    We have a number of people in my extended family with a touch of aspergers, though my social worker son has told me that it has been removed from the diagnostic manuel. I’m not sure how I feel about that. On the one hand, the definition is so general that it could be applied to half the population. On the other hand, it is nice to have a diagnosis when your child has some of these issues. Many kids who have this are brilliant in some ways and utterly clueless in others. In my experience, however, they can be taught some of the social skills that elude them. Even so, they still tend to be “different.” It’s a difference that for the most part I appreciate.

    • #3
    • April 7, 2014, at 7:38 AM PDT
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  4. D.C. McAllister Inactive
    D.C. McAllister Post author

    Merina–thank you for telling me about that story. It’s a perfect illustration. I do want to clarify one thing. The word Asperger’s has been removed but that doesn’t mean the diagnosis has changed per se; it’s been reclassified. If you have actually been diagnosed with Asperger’s, your classification is now simply “Autism.” They did it to simplify the system, but people think that because there are so many differences in the Autism Spectrum that you need detailed and separate descriptors to get people the exact treatment they need. This kind of puts everyone under the same umbrella.

    When I asked my son what he thought about the reclassification, that he is now defined as “autistic” and not an Aspie, he was a little bothered. He liked the disctinction of Asperger’s because it separated him from more severe autism in the spectrum.

    There have also been misdiagnoses of Asperger’s, but those who have been tested under the new scale are simply said to have autism. Of course, I’m not an expert either, so if anyone has any more detailed information on the reclassification, please let me know.

    • #4
    • April 7, 2014, at 7:46 AM PDT
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  5. D.C. McAllister Inactive
    D.C. McAllister Post author

    Merina–do you remember the name of that story?

    • #5
    • April 7, 2014, at 7:47 AM PDT
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  6. The (apathetic) King Prawn Member

    Beautiful and perfect. Thank you.

    • #6
    • April 7, 2014, at 7:51 AM PDT
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  7. Aaron Miller Member

    When I read the title, I was sure salt would be involved. The “Mother’s Joy” part did make me doubt, though. ;)

    D.C. McAllister: Why couldn’t I get my son to listen to me—really listen? I told him to pay attention, to look me in the eyes when I was talking to him, but he wouldn’t. “I am paying attention,” he would say, his brow furrowed.

    The funny thing about this is how easy it is to overcorrect. If you look at someone constantly while they talk, never looking away, that’s called “staring” and makes many people uncomfortable. I consciously make myself look away these days.There are many expectations in a typical conversation, some of which require balance. Aspies have particular trouble with Grice’s Maxims. It’s not that we’re incapable. It just doesn’t come natural, so it requires conscious learning. 

    The older your son gets, the less people will notice anything different. But sometimes it’s just mimicry — acting the same but not thinking the same. 

    When I first learned about Asperger’s in a college linguistics class, it was a revelation. Mainly, it made me realize that physical peculiarities and mental eccentricities were strangely bound together. Later, it felt good to have my self-diagnosis verified by a pscychiatrist. He probably didn’t get many other clients coming to him with a printed list of neatly organized and detailed symptoms! But it has been a decade since then and I hardly think of the word “Asperger’s” now. It’s just as well because we don’t exist anymore. ;)

    Oh, and for reference during any future Ricochetti meetups, the need for semi-conscious processing of non-verbal social language means we aliens are dumber in face-to-face conversations than when writing from isolation. It’s hard to think clearly with split attention.

    • #7
    • April 7, 2014, at 7:53 AM PDT
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  8. D.C. McAllister Inactive
    D.C. McAllister Post author

    Aaron–there are so many different facets to someone with “high-functioning autism”–to use the proper term now. :) The physical characteristics are interesting, the gait of the walk, the body movements. I know what you mean about the staring to over-correct. Before I knew what was wrong, that would scare me a little. I’d look at my son and I would see a blankness to his eyes, but he was just trying to figure it all out. I hate that I over-reacted and was so frightened, that I got angry at times (major guilt!). He was so relieved when he got the diagnosis. But he also struggles with some additional OCD issues that go along with the autism. It’s all quite difficult, but he is working through it. Thank you for your encouraging words. :)

    As for salt. No salt allowed in our house—for the preservation of the slugs, of course. :)

    • #8
    • April 7, 2014, at 7:59 AM PDT
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  9. Bryan G. Stephens Thatcher

    DC thank you for sharing. A touching story. It is the moments of Tracendent Joy where being a parent is at, that carry us through the hard places, even the diagnosis we do not like.

    It is in those moments I have some small understanding of how our great creator must feel about me. I find that through my children, in many ways, I see not only myself, but feel the arms of God around us all.

    • #9
    • April 7, 2014, at 8:04 AM PDT
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  10. Brian Watt Member

    You are indeed a great mom and this is a great story and a life lesson for everyone. I don’t know what’s normal anymore. So many people we presume are normal often have aberrant, anti-social behavior. I could name several politicians but we’d be here awhile.

    As many here know, my son is severely Autistic and speech-challenged. Occasionally he gets aggressive but I would say about 98% of the time he’s a wonderful young man. He’s 21 now, tipping the scales at 190 lbs. and is six foot one, an inch taller than I am and even though I get help with caregivers while I’m at work and he is out of school, it is getting increasingly challenging caring for him. I had to laugh because the other day he pushed me down the upstairs hallway and I slid the length of it in my stocking feet because he didn’t want the color of bed sheets I had selected for his bed. And for those who’ve met me at Ricochet events, I’m not exactly a small guy.

    Like your son, I don’t think my son will ever marry unless there’s a remarkable neurological breakthrough that cures his Autism and allows him to speak in long coherent sentences. I know there’s a lot going on in his brain. I know that he’s actually quite perceptive and bright… sometimes mischevious and devious and can be incredibly funny. 

    Thanks for the post and helping others understand what life can be like with an Autistic child and that as you say, we all need to take a moment and look through their eyes from time to time. Cheers.

    • #10
    • April 7, 2014, at 8:18 AM PDT
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  11. Richard Finlay Member

    Merina Smith:… In my experience, however, they can be taught some of the social skills that elude them….

     From personal experience, I can attest that this is true. It can be stressful and exhausting sometimes, though.

    • #11
    • April 7, 2014, at 8:22 AM PDT
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  12. Aaron Miller Member

    Misthiocracy: If this doesn’t strike me as being particularly “different”, does that mean that I am “different”?

    D.C. McAllister: there are so many differences in the Autism Spectrum

     Most psychological disorders are exagerrations of normal symptoms. What’s normal? Consider a Bell Curve. There are countless degrees of various “symptom” combinations and strengths/weaknesses in the middle. “Normal” is an arbitrary distinction, but not without significance. The rule of thumb for when something becomes a disorder is when it severely impedes or complicates normal functions (productivity, social interaction, providing for oneself, etc). Again, “severely” is an arbitrary measure.

    There are even debates over what counts as an impediment. The DSM recognizes delusional disorders — “crazy” is the layman’s term. But what counts as a delusion? Is talking to God, and hearing Him respond, delusional? Is it delusional to think you’re being tormented by demons? Most Christians believe these situations are sometimes real and sometimes delusional. An atheist would obviously be quicker to conclude the latter, but he can’t lock “the madman” up if the majority of his neighbors think the guy is sane.

    Anyway, that’s an extreme example. A more common example is OCD. Married people are often annoyed by little quirks of their spouses, like having to stack dishes in the dishwasher a particular way or incessant finger-tapping. Such actions are normal and are easily tolerated. However, if a person couldn’t sleep at night knowing that the dishes were stacked wrong, or if a person always had to sit or stand near a hard surface so that he could tap his fingers, that’s a disruptive eccentricity.

    Unreasonable disruption = disorder.

    For people with lifelong disorders, comorbidity is common — basically meaning that one disorder can lead to others. For example, my autism led to constant but subdued paranoia that everyone nearby was always watching and listening to everything I did. It wasn’t until mid-college that I stopped sitting in a back corner of every class. As a musician, I still can’t play my guitar and sing in an empty house without feeling like I’m being listened to. But many symptoms fade with time.

    The nice thing about mild autism is a detached, logical approach to life facilitates self-criticism and adaptation. The downside is that subdued emotions depress motivation. Autistic kids and young adults often waste a lot of time playing video games or reading books when they should be doing other things.

    • #12
    • April 7, 2014, at 8:24 AM PDT
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  13. D.C. McAllister Inactive
    D.C. McAllister Post author

    Brian–thank you for sharing. I can’t imagine what you deal with on a day-to-day basis, but you do have my compassion.

    • #13
    • April 7, 2014, at 8:28 AM PDT
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  14. AR Inactive
    AR

    Aaron Miller: Oh, and for reference during any future Ricochetti meetups, the need for semi-conscious processing of non-verbal social language means we aliens are dumber in face-to-face conversations than when writing from isolation. It’s hard to think clearly with split attention.

     And for some of us, the noise and cognitive stress outweighs the benefits of attending a gathering.

    • #14
    • April 7, 2014, at 8:33 AM PDT
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  15. Merina Smith Inactive

    D.C. McAllister:Merina–do you remember the name of that story?

     I think it was called The Joy of Living or the True Joy of Living. I couldn’t find it with that title though–the phrase is too common.

    • #15
    • April 7, 2014, at 8:35 AM PDT
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  16. Misthiocracy grudgingly Member

    Aaron Miller: Autistic kids and young adults often waste a lot of time playing video games or reading books when they should be doing other things.

     … or posting on Ricochet?

    • #16
    • April 7, 2014, at 8:49 AM PDT
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  17. Aaron Miller Member

    Misthiocracy:

    Aaron Miller: Autistic kids and young adults often waste a lot of time playing video games or reading books when they should be doing other things.

    … or posting on Ricochet?

     What could be more productive? 

    • #17
    • April 7, 2014, at 8:51 AM PDT
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  18. Misthiocracy grudgingly Member

    Aaron Miller:

    Misthiocracy:

    Aaron Miller: Autistic kids and young adults often waste a lot of time playing video games or reading books when they should be doing other things.

    … or posting on Ricochet?

    What could be more productive?

     Ah, my old friend Productive Procrastination. We go back a long way.

    • #18
    • April 7, 2014, at 8:57 AM PDT
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  19. DocJay Inactive

    A beautiful story Denise. One that mimics my son’s life as you know. Love and patience can overcome a world of issues. You must be so proud of him.

    • #19
    • April 7, 2014, at 10:54 AM PDT
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  20. D.C. McAllister Inactive
    D.C. McAllister Post author

    DocJay:A beautiful story Denise. One that mimics my son’s life as you know. Love and patience can overcome a world of issues. You must be so proud of him.

    Thank you, DocJay. I am. :)

    You know better than anyone what he’s going through with his biochemistry and cell biology majors. I try not to worry but I still do. 

    • #20
    • April 7, 2014, at 11:11 AM PDT
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  21. Merina Smith Inactive

    Those in my family who have this to varying degrees have married and had families. They are male and their wives are wonderful! They may be socially awkward, but they are very smart and intelligence is attractive to women. They are high-functioning and able to hold jobs. I expect to see more of it down the road in the family, since there seems to be a genetic component.

    • #21
    • April 7, 2014, at 11:12 AM PDT
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  22. Angmoh Gao Inactive

    A lovely piece of writing and thinking. Thank you.

    I find it hard to love slugs though. On still nights, if I sit in my garden, I can clearly hear them munching on my Hostas!

    • #22
    • April 7, 2014, at 1:14 PM PDT
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  23. VooDoo Inactive

    Great story, best to you and your son. He’ll do great in life.

    • #23
    • April 7, 2014, at 1:39 PM PDT
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  24. Jules PA Member

    What a beautiful story.

    I think your son’s condition and his love of slugs could end up with him accomplishing something very special–scientifically or otherwise.

    I believe that every burden we bear, and every trial we face, prepares us to uniquely do something no one else can do. The challenge is to be sensitive to that special purpose and be patient until that purpose is revealed.

    From Myra Broooks Welsh, The Touch of the Master’s Hand

    …But the Master comes, and the foolish crowd

    Never can quite understand

    The worth of a soul and the change that is wrought

    By the touch of the Master’s hand.

    http://www.oldpoetry.com/Myra_Brooks_Welch/8601687-The_Touch_of_the_Masters_Hand

    • #24
    • April 7, 2014, at 7:00 PM PDT
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  25. Pony Convertible Member

    Your son is different. He actually called you from college and he didn’t need anything from you? I have had 3 sons go through college. I don’t think I ever enjoyed such an experience.

    • #25
    • April 8, 2014, at 5:08 AM PDT
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  26. Stan Hjerleid Inactive

    You are a special woman Denise. God Bless

    • #26
    • April 8, 2014, at 7:06 AM PDT
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  27. D.C. McAllister Inactive
    D.C. McAllister Post author

    Pony Convertible:Your son is different. He actually called you from college and he didn’t need anything from you? I have had 3 sons go through college. I don’t think I ever enjoyed such an experience.

     Well, he did ask me to send him a bunch of beef jerky and Vitamin C gummies, so I do get the “send me stuff” calls too! Quite often.

    • #27
    • April 8, 2014, at 7:29 AM PDT
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  28. Profile Photo Member

    Thanks to Denise (for the story) and to all commenters involved in living with challenges/caring for those of us who do. Beautiful! Prayers all around.

    • #28
    • April 8, 2014, at 5:09 PM PDT
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  29. KatyAnne Inactive

    This was just beautiful. I cry very little, but this brought out my waterworks. Your son is very blessed to have such a compassionate mother…but likewise, I think you are blessed to have such a special son. I worked for a short time doing in-home education programs with autistic children. Despite the day-to-day difficulties, I had so much admiration for both the parents, because it isn’t easy adjusting everyone’s life to accommodate, but also for the children. The strength on both end to not only tolerate, but learn to enjoy, is just amazing. But if you can find those ways to connect and share love in a way that speaks to each other, all the more precious, and likely maybe just a little more cherished.

    • #29
    • April 9, 2014, at 2:41 PM PDT
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  30. D.C. McAllister Inactive
    D.C. McAllister Post author

    Thank you KatyAnne. :)

    I did want to say in case anyone was wondering. I did have permission to post this. It helps that my son and I don’t share a last name. If we did I wouldn’t get away with writing about my family as much as I do. :)

    • #30
    • April 10, 2014, at 3:38 PM PDT
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