It didn’t really start out as a secret. It started out as a form of protection. It started out as a way to keep myself and teachers from lowering goals. It started out as a way to keep him whole and to retain the innocence of being just another kid on the block and in the classroom.
We would not let autism define us.
But then it happens. He gets older and you whisper the word to others. You hush the doctors who might say it out loud and change him with those six letters. Those simple six letters are harmless alone but, together, lined up starting with “a” and ending in “m” are some of the most powerful letters there are.
Those six letters can change people and not always for the better. Those six letters can make a parent expect less and make a teacher and a classroom lower standards. Those six letters can make a school district close the doors of the classes the “other” kids use. Those six letters can confine a child to a life of being less, doing less, having less.
So, naturally, wanting my boy to be seen as just another kid, I have sheltered him from the words, the label and the baggage that are carried in those letters when fully assembled. I have spent ten years, making sure my boy was something more than a giant, red letter “A” emblazoned across his chest.
With that said, and as he marches into his thirteenth birthday, I have also come to understand, I cannot keep hiding the word. It has jumped out on more than one occasion. It has made me fumble and jump myself in order to contain it before it does any damage.
I knew he and I needed to have a conversation but, that morning at my computer, I didn’t know it was going to crawl out from nowhere and rear its head uninvited. It wasn’t something I had planned or spent time choreographing. I had started to wonder, or fret as I sometimes do, over how I would let my son know he is autistic. He is getting older. He is more aware. I knew it was coming and, at some point, I would have that conversation with him. It just didn’t need to be immediate. It was more of a “one day” kind of a thing in my planning mind but I knew it was on the horizon. I also knew I wanted it to come from me and not some kid on the playground.
That morning when the moment found me, I had not chosen words yet and certainly had no strategy or back up plans. The script had not even formed inside my head. And, even as it was beginning to happen and I could see it unfolding at my desk, I still had nothing. I thought to myself and wondered, “Is this really happening?” I was nervous. I wondered how I would say it but I also got the feeling what I was being given right then was a God moment. It’s like when someone gives you a freebie and you don’t have to even work for it or create it on your own. A moment of grace and light bestowed upon you directly from God’s own hand that, if you are smart, you will embrace before it moves away.
I was actually watching a well played basketball clip about an autistic boy who worked as the manager for his school basketball team. I am sure many of you have seen the clip. They’re at a basketball game and the coach tells the boy to suit up. It’s a nice gesture and the boy and his family are thrilled. Then, in a quirky turn of events, not only did the coach have him suit up, he also, in the last four minutes or so of play, puts the boy in the game as a real player. The boy goes in, all smiles, and at first he misses a few shots. But then, he starts making these crazy, three point, never-happen-in-a-million-years kind of shots. Like I have said. Many of you have seen it. It is unbelievable. Crazy good stuff. The boy ends up making like twenty points in the last four minutes of the game and the crowd goes absolutely wild. And, if it’s a thrilling moment for me, as a stranger, I can only imagine how his family and friends felt.
At the time, and in my kitchen, I was preparing a presentation on autism. I wanted to show the other side of autism that displays its magnificence so I was checking some clips. My son, who was eating breakfast in the kitchen, hears the crowd going wild on the computer and asks what it’s about. So, I took a deep breath, embraced the moment and told him it was about a boy who is autistic who does great things.
Then my son asks the question that I have dreaded, waited for, feared, “Really, Mom? What is autistic?”
I have lived for the last ten years with autism as part of our reality but I have not let it crowd us, become us, overtake who we are. It has simply been a point of reference for us. It is spoken about in IEP meetings and with teachers but has not been allowed to define or change the boy. I spent ten years protecting him from the big red “A”.
The moment I had waited for was here. I waited. I feared. Then, I gathered my courage and I spoke.
“It’s when your brain is wired differently and it makes you capable of doing great things. Some really great people like Einstein were autistic.” Yes, I know the jury is still out on whether Einstein really was but, I did not have time to research and split hairs….so I went with it.
And, my boy, as only he can, says without skipping a beat, “Wow, I wish I was autistic. Mom, could I be autistic?”
“Yes, buddy, you are autistic.”
I could hardly breathe much less think but I took a moment and then, before I can even speak, my son adds, “Hey, Mom, I’m Irish, Norwegian and Native American. Am I autistic too?”
I smiled and I told him, “Yes, my friend, you are Irish, Norwegian, Native American and a little bit autistic.” The boys beams, smiles and like only he can, says, “REALLY? That’s cool mom. I’m autistic.”
I smiled bigger than my face was made to smile and my mouth stretched so far it hurt. The kids were all still in the middle of the getting ready for school routine so I held my tears for later. I held them for the drive home after dropping off kids at school when I could let it all really sink in. It was a God moment. He presented me with an opportunity and, for once, I had the smarts to take hold of it and make it happen. I could not have planned it better. I had no strategy as great as this. Even on a good day, I could not have dreamed this up. It was perfect. I had struggled over how I would tell him and before I could even construct it, it landed in my lap. The lesson for me, of course, is stop the fretting and really embrace the whole philosophy of “let go and let God”.
I always wanted him to know who he was, fully, but without making him feel like something was wrong with him. I wanted him to understand who he was without that knowledge somehow making him feel like he was less. Autism has made him such a gift and a blessing and I wanted my words to help him to understand the gift that he is to me and everyone around him. I wanted him to feel like he was more and I had been able to preserve that life for him with the moment that followed the basketball clip. One day I will need to thank Jason McElwain for being so remarkable himself and his coach for being such a brilliant and courageous, trail blazing man. Both of them provided me with a level of grace I would never have found on my own.