My eight-year-old son, M., has autism. For an autistic kid, M. is very in tune with other people’s feelings. He shows a great amount of empathy. He gets very upset when others are upset.
For example, when our house gets loud or we’re arguing with M.’s older brother JC, M. gets very unsettled. He starts to growl. “GRRR,” he says. If we ignore him and get even louder, he growls even louder. When we notice M. is growling at us, we stop and realize how ridiculous we sound yelling at each other, and usually we start to laugh.
Whenever M. thinks we are upset with him, or hears the slightest change of tone in our voice, he says, “Happy my teeth” and looks at our faces. We figured out early on that he wants us to smile at him to prove we are happy. He watches our faces and doesn’t let us off the hook until we actually show him teeth in the form of a smile. It’s really sweet. If we don’t smile right away, he says it again. “Happy my teeth.” The way he says it is super cute– like, “Happy my teef.”
On occasion though, M. wants us to be happy before we are ready to be happy. Like when he dumps the Legos on the floor. A floor covered in those pointy little overpriced Blocks from Hell does not make me happy (As an irrelevantly relevant fact, wouldn’t that be a good way for the CIA to torture detainees? Screw sleep deprivation- here, walk over this floor of Legos with bare feet!).
Still, once M. hears our tone change, he’ll start with his “happy my teef” routine. Here’s a typical “conversation”:
JC (yelling upstairs from basement): MAAAAA, M. dumped all my Legos onto the floor!
Me (screaming into basement): PICK UP THE LEGOS!
JC: He’s not doingggggg it!
(Mom (me) walks down the stairs into the basement and gasps in horror! The Legos are spread like a layer of hot coals, the dog is chewing a couple of limited edition mini-figures, and M. is sitting in the middle of the pile making snow angels, Legos flying in all directions.)
JC: Oh my God! M.! Clean up the Legos!
M: Happy my teef!
Me (with furrowed brow and Mom Voice): No. No happy my teeth! My teeth are not happy.
M: Happy my teef! HAPPY MY TEEF!
Me: You CAN’T dump the Legos all the time. Clean them up, NOW.
M: HAPPY MY TEEF! HAPPY MY TEEF!
(Now M. has approached me, his face inches from mine, holding my cheeks until I show him I’m happy.)
Me: FINE. Happy my teeth (I fake smile).
It’s usually around this point where I stop being upset. The kid is just so friggin’ cute. He has these big, brown puppy dog eyes and awkward-kid-stage oversized teeth, kissable cheeks, and goofy hair that points in different directions. He faces all these challenges in his life and all he ever asks for is for everyone to be happy. And he’s there in front of me staring at me, looking into my eyes. Do I want him to see my angry face or my happy teeth?
So I smile. “Happy my teeth,” I say. M., finally satisfied with my response, moves onto the next thing and I go get the broom and sweep up the Legos.
I’m thinking that we should try M.’s technique with the cranky people in our lives. Next time someone starts to yell at you, try saying “GRRRRR” in response. When someone starts to spew negativity, stick your face in theirs and repeat “Happy my teeth!” over and over until they show you a smile. Maybe it will work!
Have a nice night!