"I was worried kids would laugh at me," Olive said, in response to my questions about why she wouldn't wear the seagull costume she designed and made herself from a Honeywell box.
We picked up the box at the TrueValue hardware store in town known as the Fish House. The clerk led us to the stock room when I told him both my kids wanted to make their own Halloween costumes out of boxes. "Take your pick," he said, as he waved his arm in front of a stack of broken down boxes of various sizes.
Elias, who has been a ghost for the past four years and a black and white dog for the previous three, actually walked up to me in the kitchen last week and said, "I think I know how to make an elevator."
"Yeah?" I said, as I chopped carrots for dinner.
"Yeah, out of a box. And I can cut open doors and make buttons on it."
I put down my knife and looked at my boy. "Do you mean for a Halloween costume?"
"Yeah," he said.
I smiled and tasseled his sandy hair. "That's a great idea, Bud."
A new costume idea brought forward by my son who reigns over the kingdom of "I don't know" --his answer to most questions with any lean towards the creative.
So we made plans to find him a big box and of course Olive decided she wanted a big box too, despite begging for a mermaid costume back in July, when Costco prominently placed Halloween outfits by the foot door three months early.
We left TrueValue with four flattened boxes, and returned to our cabin where Olive dug into her project immediately, using kitchen shears to cut wings with self-designed hand holds, squares for a head, a triangle beak and tail. All the design aspects came from her own pulsing brain, with Nick only helping to attach the pieces, as Olive's first attempt, with scotch tape, didn't hold quite as well as the miracle of duct tape.
When Olive finished her project, she kept telling me, "I really love my costume Mom. Don't you?"
"Yes, I especially love that you came up with the idea and designed it yourself."
She carried the box bird up our steep ladder steps to the loft so she could look at it as she fell asleep and when she woke earlier than normal on Saturday morning, I caught her trying to carry it down on her own.
"Let me help you with that." I reached up and grabbed the box pieces from her, spray-painted white with help from her Dad.
"I really like my costume, Mom," Olive said, as she cartwheeled across the kitchen.
Ever since watching the Final Five of Olympic fame, Olive hasn't stopped cartwheeling, even in the trailer, on David's hard tile floor, on our gravel driveway, the rocky beach, while walking down the store-lined sidewalk of 4th avenue, Olive throws her hands to the ground and kicks her legs in an arch that grows crisper, stronger, with practice.
"Do you like my costume Mom?"
"I love it."
How do we go from this strong-willed creative child, comfortable in her body, proud of her handiwork, to one on the edge of tears at the thought of donning her costume in front of her peers?
As soon as we pulled into the campground, where the Teen and Youth Center planned a "pumpkin prowl" for kids under nine, with plastic pumpkins scattered through the woods, hot chocolate, and marshmallows to roast, Olive said, "Mom, I don't want to wear the body, just the head and wings."
"But I can't really see with the head, so I don't want to wear it."
"How about just for a little bit."
"Olive its such a cool costume and you worked really hard to make it."
"No, I don't waaaant to," tears building, she yanked on my arm, pulling us in the opposite direction of the party, "I don't want to wear it!"
Meanwhile, Elias, who drove with Nick, the two car trick in case we needed to bolt, arrived wearing his black elevator box with a big grin, an adolescent at a party for young kids, asking anyone and no-one in particular: "Do you like my elevator?"
I've said this before, and I'll say it again, one of the gifts of autism is how little time's spent worrying about how others perceive you. Or at least it seems that way to me, as the mother of a boy on the spectrum. Elias doesn't compare himself to the crowd or view himself through other people's eyes. Out in the world and at home, his persona doesn't change. There is no altering of his appearance, tone, or perspectives to please others.
You get what you get.
Elias, as is.
This is one trait that I wish would rub off on his little sister, Olive, my emotional child, who is acutely aware of the reactions of others. New to the community, not willing to expose herself to anticipated jeers--that were most likely only phantoms of her mind--she hides a part of her beauty, her creative self, that constantly surprises me with her abundance of ideas.
On most nights, you'll find Nick, Elias, and I sitting in a row, as Olive performs a new show. Gymnastics and dance has morphed into a kind of charades where Olive acts out animals for us to guess: somersaulting for an armadillo, arms flapping for a flying fox bat, curling her body up on the rug for a barnacle, lying on her back with her feet together and knees out for a...
"I don't know."
"We give up."
"A muscle," Olive says, like how could we not know?!?
"Oh, of course," we smile.
Last night, as we all sat at the table for a family game, looking in the bin for Yahtzee, Nick pulled out a bag of pens and dice.
"Pens and dice, that's not a game," Elias said.
"Yes, it is," said Olive, as she passed us each a pen and die, then grabbed four pieces of printer paper. "The way it works is we each roll our dice and whatever number we get that's how many pictures we have to draw."
And so it went, all four of us, heads bent over our papers, rolling and drawing airplanes, flowers, fishing rods, trucks, axes, dogs, kayaks, and boxes of wine.
Now, if only this creative energy of Olive's didn't diminish in front of others, outside of the comfort of family, when fear of judgement overrides her original impulses.
My strong confident girl, who cried to me the other night, looking in the mirror at the red-chapped skin around her lips, from her habit of sticking her tongue out as she crosses the monkey bars with ease, the cold Alaskan air quickly drying the soft tissue around her mouth. "Mom, I don't like when kids point it out, when they say: 'Why is it always red there?'"
And I find myself holding my six-year-old girl, hurt by the comments of others, worried about her appearance, wondering what to say, how to ride this tumult together, knowing it will only get worse before it gets better, until one day she says:
Fuck it! I don't give a shit what other people think of me-- I'll wear what I want and say whatever I need to say!
If only that someday could come today.
(With more appropriate kid friendly language, of course.)
How do we get from here to there?