My son has autism. There is no cure.
At least, I don’t think there’s a cure. I mean, if there is, I haven’t heard about it.
Oh sure, there are therapies and diets and ways to modify his behavior and medicine to help with his crushing anxiety. These are all very, very good things—great things, even—and they’ve been incredibly helpful.
But when the sun rises each morning and sets again each night, my boy Jack still has autism.
Maybe, one day, science will figure out a way to rewire his brain so that he can understand social cues and he won’t need Melatonin to sleep and he’ll finally let me hug him tightly with both arms.
I’m not holding my breath though. Not that I have anything against science or anything—not at all. In fact, I love science.
Science tells us that one out of sixty-eight children are diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Disorder. The Center for Disease Control says this is about 1% of the population. And 1% of the population is approximately 72 million people.
That is a lot of people. One time Jack screamed at me that there was no one else like him in this world and I said, well, buddy, that’s not true. There’s actually 72 million other people like you in this world.
He just turned and walked away, but hey. I tried.
The problem is, if 72 million people have autism, then that means 7.2 billion people do not have autism.
That is also a lot of people.
If you see my son, his autism may not be obvious right away. In fact, it might be a little confusing.
I mean, he looks like a regular boy. He is tall, with glasses, and he wears bright blue sneakers.
But after a few minutes, you might start to notice some of his, shall we say, idiosyncrasies.
Like how he looks at the floor and the ceiling and his feet—anywhere but in your eyes.
Or how he doesn’t answer right away when you ask him a question.
Or how his body bursts into a spontaneous dance where his legs jump and his fingers twitch.
You may even think he’s a little rude.
Here’s a riddle to solve: is it easier to change 72 billion people to understand the specific needs of 72 million people, or to change 72 million people understand the ways and habits and traditions of 72 billion people even if those ways and habits and traditions make zero sense and are very confusing and eventually lead to agitation and frustration?
My head hurts.
I’m not sure there is a solution.
I think we have to start small.
If you see my son Jack, take a moment, and say hello.
Ask him about music.
Ask him about cars. He loves talking about cars now, especially Honda Pilots.
Ask him about his dog or his mood ring or the latest Disney movie.
He bought the mood ring when we were on vacation. He reports on its color, oh, I don’t know, every five minutes or so.
Whatever you do, do not ask him about Oreos.
I mean, you can if you want, but be prepared to spend some time debating the best flavor. (Hint: his is berry.)
Do not, under any circumstances, give him your cell phone number, even if he asks for it a bunch of times. Let’s just say he gets, uh, a little enthusiastic with the emojis.
This may sound obvious, but the thing is he knows. He knows when people are nervous or insincere, and deep down inside where his heart beats and his soul sings, this boy of mine longs for genuine connection. He longs for real conversation.
Take a moment, and tell him a little bit about your own life.
Tell him what kind of car you drive, and if you have any pets, and whether or not you like avocados.
He loves avocados.
You don’t need to talk loudly, or slowly. He can hear you, even if it appears that he can’t. He is listening, even when it seems that he isn’t.
He is not deaf, or stupid, or arrogant. It’s just that words are hard for him. They are like so many bright, luminescent butterflies flying above his head. Oftentimes, he can’t catch them fast enough.
This is why he pauses a lot during a conversation.
It’s easy to get impatient, but try to sit still and not jump ahead and repeat your question or ask him something else. Take a deep breath, and give him a moment.
I find that counting to ten in my head helps. And while I’m counting, I picture the butterflies. I imagine their dazzling wings against a neon sky.
Try not to use idioms, or metaphors. They confuse him. It helps if you speak directly. Instead of this:
Hey buddy! How are you? Man, is it hot today! That sun is so strong, you could fry an egg out there.
It might be better to say this:
Hello, Jack. How are you? Today the sun is very hot.
Once you can see him for who he is, rather than what he has, you’ll discover that he’s actually pretty funny. He’s smart. He’s curious, and kind.
You’ll discover that talking to him is purest kind of communication you have ever known.
It’s true that when it comes to autism, I do not believe there is a cure. Instead, I believe in something else.
I believe in change.
I believe in possibility.
I believe some things are bigger than a moment.
The sun. It makes me smile.