Ma? Mom? Mommy? Mommy?

A while ago my daughter shared a video clip from an old episode of “Family Guy” that she thought was hilarious. In it, Stewie pulls a prank on his mom, calling the various versions of her name repeatedly until she responds, and then he runs away laughing. As soon as I saw the clip I thought of Lia, but it isn’t a joke for her. Unlike the little television character, Lia isn’t asking for “Ma? Mom? Mommy?” just to be annoying.

When Mom is out of sight, Lia seems to get a little apprehensive and ask for her. Early in our relationship, she would ask for her mother every few minutes, now, it tends to just happen periodically – on most days. Each time she asks, I will simply look at her and respond, “She’ll be back,” and then continue on with whatever we’re doing.

Sometimes, just to make sure I understood her request, she will emphasize her desire with a whine, “I want Mommy.”

“She’ll be back,” I reassure her again. I try to keep it short and sweet – and sincere. I don’t want to make her mother’s absence any more of a focus than it already is. In fact, my goal is to reassure her and redirect her attention to something else.

I am told that some children with autism can be prone to sudden and prolonged bouts of anxiety. This anxiety can easily escalate into a full-blown panic attack and may manifest as a “meltdown”. It’s hard to understand what that feels like if you’ve never actually experienced it, but the fear is real, and the emotion can be overwhelming.

I have tried to think of an experience I can compare this to, one that would shed a little light on what she’s going through. The best that I could come up with is that split-second moment when you’re out shopping with your little one and you look down – he isn’t there. There are simultaneous feelings of shock, disbelief, and panic. Your heart starts to race and you feel confused – What do I do? What happened? Where is he? To hear your spouse say, “He’s over here,” gives you a wash of relief, and you can breathe again.

I’m guessing it’s a little like that.

As far as I can tell, the only trigger for these particular episodes of anxiety is that she suddenly realizes she hasn’t seen her Mom for a while, or hasn’t asked about her, and she feels compelled to do so, regardless of the current activity she happens to be engaged in.

“Mommy?”

“She’ll be back.” I look up and offer a quick smile.

Lia pauses for a moment, as if to validate my response, and she is relieved. At least, temporarily, and we continue on.

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