“Can you believe Jack made this?” the karate instructor said, handing me a small white flag.
“He did?” I asked, turning the piece of fabric over in my hands.
“Yes!” she said excitedly. “All on his own. We told them to use the space to describe themselves, and that’s what he drew.”
He’d colored boxes in the four corners of the rectangle, and written care, love, nice, and autism in each. In the center were four hearts with the words the hearts of awareness written unevenly above in red marker.
I looked back at her face, open and sweet, and noted her eyes had a glimmer of tears.
“I just think it’s so amazing, what he wrote.”
“Oh, it is! Amazing.”
But standing in the lobby of the karate studio, picking all five kids up from camp, I felt almost disconnected from Jack’s artwork. For some reason, I didn’t feel thrilled or excited or emotional in the least. I felt nothing.
Just then all five kids rushed up the stairs to where I stood, Jack sandwiched between two of his brothers.
“Hey! Jack! Did you–“
“Do NOT ASK ME about that FLAG!”
“Okay Jack, calm down. Let’s go.”
And home we went, to an afternoon of badminton and swimming. But I kept thinking about the flag, and whenever I caught a glimpse of it on the counter, jumbled amongst the rest of the papers and artwork from camp that day, I felt uneasy.
I asked Jack about it a few times during the day.
“Nothing. I don’t know.”
“What do you mean you don’t know?”
“I don’t know why I wrote it. It is just done.”
Later that night, as I was cleaning the kitchen after dinner and putting the day’s paperwork away, I realized why the flag bothered me: it didn’t seem like something he was, well, smart enough to think of and draw.
A lot of times people comment how smart Jack is; how uncannily brilliant people on the spectrum tend to be.
Huh, I usually say to myself. You think?
I’m not saying this to be mean. Joe and I have five kids, and as with any group, we have what I would consider to be a range of intelligence. Without naming names, we have one who is quite bright but incorrigibly lazy, two hard workers and one bound for juvie.
(Okay, I gave that last one away with the juvie thing. That was obviously five-year old Henry.)
And then we have Jack. Jack’s brain is about as easy to deconstruct as, well, I can’t come up with a good analogy here but you get the point. It’s tricky.
Yes, he has an extensive memory for seemingly random information; when we last went to Dairy Queen, what time Caillou is on, how old Rosa Parks was when she died.
But does the ceaseless acquisition of obscure information mean a person is smart? Is the constant cataloging of dates and times and Oreo Blizzards a sign of intelligence?
Merriam-Webster defines smart as very good at learning or thinking about things, and showing intelligence or good judgment.
You see? This definition doesn’t mention one single thing about Nazi Germany facts or Disney movies or memorizing license plates. And we all know about his occasional lack of judgment, especially when it comes to kayaks.
How, exactly, does he process information?
He is good at a lot of things. He makes breakfast almost independently now and he has figured out how to manipulate the Rubix Cube so two sides have solid colors and he always, always reminds me when my nephew’s birthday is.
But there are other things that remain out of his grasp. Congruent with a spectrum diagnosis, Jack has a difficult time understanding our mood or expressions. He is always astonished when I get aggravated over things like asking me ninety thousand times if we bought the tickets to see Maleficent.
At age ten, he is painfully naïve. He believes every single car commercial he sees, and thought Breast Cancer Awareness month meant women only get breast cancer during the month of October. (He pronounced it breest cancer.)
And socially? Well, please. Once again consistent with autism, social cues are like another language for our Jack. I mean, why wouldn’t you tell one of the teachers at school to stop wearing that purple plaid skirt she wears because it’s so ugly it makes you sick?
Just before he went to bed I asked him one more time about the flag, what made him think to write hearts of awareness and color a blue heart.
“Because. They are always saying LIGHT IT UP BLUE for autism.”
The next morning the kids all had karate camp again, but five-year old Henry was difficult to rouse. He stayed nestled in bed long after the other four were downstairs eating breakfast, only his chubby round face showing above his blankets.
We each took turns calling up to him, and I grew irritated while I organized the other kids’ lunches and bathing suits.
“Henry! You are making us late and you are going to miss breakfast!”
Eventually he wandered downstairs, wearing a red striped shirt and mismatching shorts. “I was sleepin’,” he announced proudly.
“Henry, LOOK!” Jack shouted. We all turned saw him standing at the toaster, buttering a warm bagel. “I made you BREAKFAST. So you can EAT. We won’t be LATE.”
I paused for a second. “Uh, Jack?”
“WHAT? No talking now, we will be late.”
So I turned back to the whirlwind of our morning routine, packing bags and applying sunscreen and shuttling them all out the door. But once I dropped them off and waved good-bye, I came back to the quiet house and noticed the flag sitting on my desk. I turned it over in my hand again.
Care. Love. Nice. Autism. Hearts of awareness.
I thought about how Jack worried about me all October long, counseling me in his monotone voice about mammograms and telling us to wear pink for Breast Cancer Awareness.
I thought about his progress with our puppy, Wolfie, over the past three months; his slow and steady steps from you have ruined my life with a dog to furtive pets and eventual walks. Now, together, they run.
I thought about awareness, which Merriam-Webster defines as knowing and understanding a lot about what is happening in the world or around you. It is feeling and noticing that something exists. It is understanding a situation or problem.
I thought about breest cancer and bagels and hearts filled in with brightly colored markers.
I decided there is Merriam-Webster smart. And then there is autism smart.
Autism smart is learning the things that come so easily for everyone else, things like caring and loving and being nice enough to toast a bagel so your brother doesn’t go to camp hungry.
It is pushing past the heartbreak of I am different to dream of bright blue lights beyond. It is conquering a phobia and racing a small tan puppy around the yard.
Sure, Jack has more to learn than most. He has to learn to stop asking strangers about Annie Frank and to maybe ask only three times what time the movie starts instead of forty. He needs to recognize a smile.
But this doesn’t mean he’s not smart. It just means his mountain is a little longer, a little steeper, a little harder to climb. But climb it he will.
Looking down at the flag in my hands, I felt emotional for the first time.
My son is so smart.