The following Saga was written by a mom who chooses to remain anonymous in order to protect the identity of her kiddo.

My oldest child is going on 12. He is madly loving of his 3-year-old brother and moderately tolerant of his 9-year-old brother. He thinks the only thing standing between him and YouTube Gamer stardom are his parents, who cannot see the reason in buying him a ka-jillion dollar computer… or games rated ‘M’, for that matter. His report card grades are average or above in all academic areas. You won’t find him on the soccer field, though. Or the basketball court. Or joining clubs of any kind. And he can’t get on the honor roll because this boy cannot get his act together when it comes to ‘affective areas’ – i.e. working hard, being polite, and playing nicely with others.

My mama saga revolves around this amazing, infuriating child who dances precariously on the line between autism spectrum disorder and maybe (forgive me, Temple Grandin) just kind of being an asshole sometimes.

You see, we’ve had ‘wonders’ and concerns since before he was even born. So many things: low amniotic fluid levels, induced 4 days late, but a beautiful baby – eyelashes out to HERE and blue eyes that would stop your heart. He struggled with nursing, then refused a bottle, then had some struggles with expressive and receptive language, sensitive and touchy around other kids from early on, then went from preschool through third grade with no specific diagnosis. Well, “developmental delay” they said, but that’s pretty broad and vague.

Through it all, he’s had his own drummer, so to speak. Seriously. Don’t even try to get him to march otherwise. We are, mostly, a pretty outgoing and joyful family. We are sociable performers, always interested in making a new acquaintance and you can bet no one has to remind us to ‘sing out, Louise’. Since he’s the oldest, I knew I could ‘fix him’ by getting him in preschool, signing him up for soccer, t-ball, children’s theater… anything they had to offer.

Yeah. Uhhhh, no. Those things did not.go.well. I handled it really well when he failed to meet the expectations of a child his age. Oh, and by that I mean I pulled him out (and maybe yelled a little) and made him sit and watch his peers… which was his preference anyway. And how many times do you put yourself and your child through that before you stop signing him up for things?

I also had the very useful habit of beating the crap out of myself when this stuff happened. A GOOD mother would know how to fix this. A GOOD mother would set  boundaries and consequences and nurture him in a manner that breeds the joy and confidence children need. A GOOD mother would do all of this, of course, while also raising two other children, advancing gracefully in a fulfilling career, and maintaining a spotless home.

Ba ha ha ha.

So, how do we know he’s not just a cranky kid who needs – in addition to a better mother – to just get over himself and cheer up toward the world?



You see, he has always had a need to spend a lot of time ‘inside himself’. From late-babyhood through toddlerhood he always liked to watch sand or pebbles falling from his hand to the ground – like, REALLY close up. Okay, I thought. He’s a scientist in the making! Exploring gravity. Great!

Then it was Thomas trains up very close to his face. We thought he just loved them and wanted to feel like he was in the story. So creative!

Next it was on to Star Wars figures and tiny light sabers and blasters.

Eventually it became any small Lego piece or Minecraft toy.

Now – still – it’s toothpicks.

He always has one. HAS to have one. If he drops one in the car, he asks to unbuckle and get it as soon as we get to a stop sign. When he is not engaged in conversation, reading a book, or looking at a screen, that toothpick is at his face, near his mouth, and he is whispering or mumbling to it. Shit, sometimes he has it up there when he IS doing those other things. He goes outside in the yard several times a day – in every New England weather condition imaginable – and darts around in some kind of… world, toothpick engaged.

What is he doing?

We don’t know. He won’t talk about it. He CAN’T talk about it. It’s his version of plate spinning or rocking. Doctors and therapists have told us it’s not a good idea to push him into giving it up. He needs it. He knows it’s weird and the last thing he wants to be is perceived as weird. He just cannot stop.

So, after so many years of various parenting strategies in hopes of finding a laid back, willing, sociable, go-getter underneath those gorgeous blue eyes and sometimes tortured soul, it’s that goddamn toothpick that saves me. The stupid toothpick says, “Hey, Mom, you still gotta keep on trying, but there’s something here that’s more than your good intentions and loving attention can fix.”

Thanks, toothpick. But if it’s all the same to you, I think I’m still gonna cry a little.

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Saralyn Ward is an award-winning writer, wellness advocate, and mountain mama. She is the founder of The Mama Sagas, writes for several publications and hosts a regular parenting TV segment on Colorado's Everyday Show. When she's not huddled over edits, you're likely to find Saralyn climbing peaks or skiing down them, and reminding herself that the two little girls that call her mom are not the boss of her.