In his memoir, teacher Hank Smith shares his valuable insight on raising of a child on the spectrum. Sticks and Stones tells the story of Ian, a boy who was diagnosed with autism thirteen years ago. The story takes place at the beginning of the current wave of children being diagnosed with autism, before there was any public awareness of this disability, before educators discovered ways to help these challenging kids in the classroom, and before effective treatments were available. While Sticks and Stones takes the reader through the grim realities of autism, it is also filled with love and humor as Ian and his parents, Hank and Michelle, find ways to cope with the challenges, and appreciate the gifts, that come with Ian’s autism.
The Summer of the Tooth
The summer of 2003 has gone down in the annals of my family as “The Summer of the Tooth.” Our son, Ian, had a strange tooth growing sideways in the gum behind his two front teeth. It needed to come out, and that July seemed the perfect time to do it. We had a trip to San Diego planned for the last two weeks of the month, but the oral surgeon assured us that Ian would be fine by then.
At first Ian seemed very nonchalant about the whole thing, but as the day grew closer, he began asking questions.
“Will I be asleep like for my ears?”
Ian had had tubes put in his ears twice and was under general anesthetic both times. Watching my six-year-old autistic son get stoned on the anesthetic was hysterical. Half of me wanted to put on some Pink Floyd and join him in his reverie.
“No, Ian. They are going to give you some medicine that you breathe. It will make you feel kind of silly and sleepy, but you won’t be asleep.”
He looked distressed. “Oh no, it’s gonna hurt!”
“No, Ian. You’ll be too relaxed and happy. I’ll see if I can be in there with you.” He didn’t look convinced.
The night before the surgery, the doctor’s office called to make sure we didn’t have any questions.
“He’s seeming pretty worried,” I said. “Is there any way I can be in the room with him?”
Over the years I’ve been “in the room” with him fairly often, from a hermetically sealed chamber for a brain scan to the x-ray room at the dentist. Because of my son, I’ve had so many doses of x-rays that I’m sure I must glow softly at night; hopefully it’s a pretty sight.
“Oh, no!” the woman sounded surprised. “We never allow parents in with their children. It’s far too traumatic!”
“You know he’s autistic right? It calms him to have me there.”
“You can be in the room until the doctor starts the procedure,” she said. “And then you’ll have to wait outside.”
I broke the news to Ian.
“I’ll be in there as long as I can, but then they said I have to leave. You’ll be fine.”
“It’s gonna hurt,” he said.
We had a ninety-minute drive to the doctor’s office. We were to give Ian a half-dose of Valium a half an hour before the surgery to help him relax. As far as I could tell, it had absolutely no effect. Ian was pretty scared when we got there.
Fortunately there was no waiting; they were ready for us when we arrived. My wife, Michelle stayed in the lobby with our daughter.
The nurse helped Ian into the chair.
“Didn’t you give him the Valium?” she asked me as Ian lay there stiff as a board.
“A half-hour ago like you guys said.”
She turned on the laughing gas, but she didn’t look very confident.
The doctor came in and quickly went over the procedure with Ian again.
“First, I’m going to have you breathe this funny-smelling gas. It’ll make you feel sleepy. Then I’m going to give you a couple of shots in your gum.”
“It’s going to hurt!” Ian wailed.
“No, no . . . they’ll be quick little pricks, then they’ll be done. Besides, you’ll feel relaxed and sleepy from the gas.” He turned to me. “You did give him the Valium?”
I nodded. He glanced quickly at the nurse. I think we were all getting nervous.
The gas went fine. Ian was laughing and relaxed, but when he saw the needle he began to moan. I put my head right by his ear.
“You’ll be fine, Bug.”
With the first shot he began to scream. I’m sure the hair on my arms was standing on end. The sound was like a million fingers being dragged slowly down an endless chalkboard. I could only imagine the poor patients waiting their turn in the lobby, their eyes wide as they heard his banshee howl.
By the last shot, I was lying on top of him, holding him down. There were words now, mixed with the screams.
“Dad, you lied! It hurts!”
It broke my heart.
The doctor was well into the extraction process when I realized I wasn’t supposed to be in the room.
“Shouldn’t I leave?” I whispered to the nurse.
She looked panicked at the thought and quickly shook her head no.
And then it was over. The stitches were in; a kind that dissolved on their own. The doctor said it would save us a trip in to have them removed. I wondered whether he just didn’t want to see us again. Ian was happy, all was forgiven. We headed home, exhausted.
We had just walked in the door when Ian said, “Hey Dad, what’s this?”
To my horror I saw a bit of string dangling from his hand. It was one of the stitches.
I quickly got on the phone to the doctor.
“He’s taken out one of the stitches!”
“He must be playing with them with his tongue. I put in four . . . he’ll be okay with three. Tell him he’s got to leave them alone.”
Telling Ian not to mess with something that feels strange to him is useless. When he has a loose tooth, he literally drives everyone around him mad until he finally gets it out. An hour later another stitch was out.
“He should be okay with two . . . one, well maybe. Call me if he takes another out.”
“Ian, we’re going to have to go back and do it all again if you don’t leave the stitches alone!” I told him in desperation.
“It’ll hurt!” he wailed.
“THEN LEAVE THEM ALONE!”
We were back in the chair the next day. They’d scheduled us for lunch time when the place would be empty; I’m sure so another set of waiting patients wouldn’t be terrified of dentists for the rest of their lives.
It went pretty much like the day before. The only change was the whole dose of Valium on the way and at least half a tank of gas during the procedure—neither of which made the slightest difference. This time the doctor put in non-dissolving stitches.
“He’ll never get these out,” he said.
Ian had the first one out before we got home.
The rest of the month was spent trying to keep the wound closed. Ian managed to get the last stitch out three days later, and as a result he ate nothing but applesauce, yogurt, Jell-O, and pudding for weeks. We canceled the trip to San Diego.
I sometimes wonder if they have the same policy at that dentist’s office.
“Hi, this is your dentist calling. We have your child down for an extraction tomorrow. Is he by any chance autistic? Oh, he is. In that case would you please triple the Valium dose, plan on staying in the operating room with him, and would you mind terribly coming at lunch time?”
As awful as the experience was, I do have one wonderful memory.
Ian and I are lying on the hide-a-bed in the family room. It is the night after the second set of stitches and I am trying to put him to sleep. Ian is truly traumatized, obsessed with the stitches in his mouth . . . fighting to keep his tongue away . . . terrified that he’ll have to go back for a third time.
We have his lullaby tape on. Ian has gone to sleep to this music nearly every night of his life from the day we brought him home. The windows are open to the soft, summer scented night air, to the sounds of the crickets . . . to the summer stars. Ian is snuggled by my side. My hand strokes is hair; he smells good. His breathing slows and becomes regular and deep.
I think to myself, How many fathers can still cuddle with their ten-year-old sons, comfort them . . . and take away the fear and pain?
That quiet, gentle night is one of the gifts of autism.
Hank Smith is an elementary school teacher living in Northern California. Living with his son, Ian, has been an amazing learning experience which has not only helped him in working with children with special needs at his school, but also has given him valuable insight to share with parents and educators. Hank and Ian share their story in well-received talks, workshops, and keynote addresses throughout California. He is the author of Sticks and Stones – A Father’s Journey Into Autism.
This article was featured in Issue 41 – Issue 41 – Celebrating Family