I know, I know. Every kid is different.
Some are blonde, and others have dark, glossy hair.
Some can hit a ball straight into left field and some like to eat pancakes and some create large, complicated cities in Minecraft.
There are kids who spend entire afternoons quietly reading, and kids who run and jump and play from the minute they wake up in the morning until their eyes close again at night.
I’m not talking about that kind of different here.
I’m talking different—like when you walk into a doctor’s office one morning and an hour later you walk back out with a piece of paper that has a lot of words typed on it, but you could basically sum it all up with one single sentence.
Your kid is different.
And buried deep inside this one sentence is your new story. Instead of a story about a typical kid who maybe plays soccer on the team and the trumpet in the band and goes on sleepovers, it is now a story about you and your child who is different, who will take medicine in order to sleep and sit alone on the bus and spend countless hours organizing Disney movies.
How do I know all of this, you wonder? How do I know about the medicine and the bus and the movies? Well, that’s easy.
My kid is different.
His name is Jack.
He has autism.
When your kid is different, you watch every single thing they do and don’t do and you obsess about it all the time until you think you might actually and for sure go crazy.
He’s in middle school and he can hardly hold a pencil the right way how is he ever going to sign a check or make a life for himself.
When your kid is different, you cry sometimes.
When your kid is different, the perfectly ordinary regular world around you changes—it becomes a bevy of bullies, and predators—manipulative sharks who glide silently next to your minnow at the pool and push him off the edge, jaguars ready chase down your wounded gazelle on the bus and take his lunch money.
When your kid is different, you might feel many big things at exactly the same time.
For example, maybe one day you’ll decide to stop on the way home from the mall and pick up some pizza. You’ll order it ahead of time and walk into the pizza place with your kid who is different.
He might be jumping and grunting and putting his fingers in his mouth, and the teenage girl at the counter might squint her eyes at him funny when she sees him.
You will feel a small, hot volcano erupt inside your body and you will want to take this girl by the shoulders and look her in her eyes and tell her to be nice to him because he’s different and he’s trying and he can’t help it.
Then you might look at your tall 13-year old boy bouncing around like a 4-year old and you might feel a flash of impatience as bright and as hot as the sun. You want to take him by the shoulders and say please can’t you just be still for one second and make this easier, it’s only pizza, stop telling everyone that Beauty and the Beast is exactly one hundred and twenty-nine minutes long because no one cares.
But you don’t do any of that. You take a deep breath and you pay for your pizza and carry it out to the car, balancing it in one hand so you can hold his through the parking lot. You drive home and you hand out cheesy slices of pizza on paper plates to the rest of your family. You go on with your life.
When your kid is different, people tell you that you should never lose hope. And they are absolutely right because hope is very, very important.
Except after a while, holding onto hope can start to feel like you’re holding onto an old, stretched out tube sock that is full of rocks. There is no comfortable way to carry it. You try slinging it over your shoulder but that’s doesn’t work because it knocks against your back and it hurts a little.
Then you grip it tightly between both of your hands until your knuckles turn white. Finally, when your fingers are aching and tired, you just clutch it to your chest and march through your days, lugging it with you everywhere you go.
Hope is heavy, that’s what I’m trying to tell you. It can feel like a burden.
Because at the same time you’re doing all that hoping, you’re also doing a lot of freaking out and panicking.
I’ve hoped my son Jack would outgrow his autism and I hoped he would stop wiping soap on the walls before I lost my mind and I hoped he would make friends with a kid his age. I hoped he would learn how to write with a pencil and would be able to sleep through the night without his little white pill.
I guess you could say I don’t know what I hope for anymore. I really don’t.
Well, that’s not exactly true. I hope he is happy.
That’s all I can really ask for—that one day in my lifetime I will look over at him and he will smile and nod at me and I will smile and nod back and I will know that my square peg of a boy has found a place within our smooth, round world. I will know he runs at least as fast as a jaguar.
When your kid is different, you become different. You can’t help it. The rules of the game have changed, and it’s up to you to make new ones.
It’s like you are sitting on the beach and sifting through the sand with one of those plastic toys little kids use when they build sand castles on hot summer days. You sift through the words on the paper and the squinty-eyed glares and the Disney movies. You look for what it important, and you realize that maybe there won’t be soccer, or sleepovers, but there will be other things.
When you are done with all that sifting, you decide it’s time to open up the tube sock and look through all the rocks. You shake it out on the ground and empty it. And at the very bottom, amidst the sandy pebbles and the dust, is a perfect pink seashell.