Every year I write each of my children a letter on their birthday and keep it in a small journal. These letters describe the person they are at that particular age; their likes and dislikes, favorite activities, and overall temperament. This letter is to my autistic son, Jack, as he celebrates his birthday today.
Happy Birthday! Today you are eight, and I can hardly believe how much you’ve changed in one year. (Or, as you would say, 365 days.)
Your school year has gone smoothly, and you adapted well to the demands of second grade. You’ve become an excellent reader, but you struggle to grasp math. In class they asked you to divide two cookies among four kids, and you became visibly agitated. They asked again, and on the third try you blurted “You need to make more cookies! Two are not enough!”
You were tickled to learn your teacher was pregnant, and loved watching her stomach as the baby grew larger. You were even more tickled when she named her new son Jack.
You have a crush on a girl in your class, and you asked us to buy the house next door so the two of you can get married and live there when you “turn eighteen and are grown-ups”.
Always literal, for a while you insisted on carrots for breakfast and bok choy every night for dinner after we explained that vegetables keep your body healthy. You still won’t touch yogurt or canned peaches, but this year you made a giant leap in communication and explained one night how “slimy foods make my tongue feel weird”.
You love marshmallows.
You seem to be happiest around your siblings; the five of you run in a tight pack. Seeing you play and dance with your brothers and sister is perhaps one of my greatest rewards. Hearing you talk, laugh, and even argue with them makes every dirty dish, every wet towel, and every spilled glass of milk worthwhile.
Your latest obsession is the calendar; a big change from last year’s preoccupation with cars. You can remember the dates for events small and large, going back as far as three years. As I was preparing dinner one evening, you asked me “Mom, what color is Monday?”. When I answered that I don’t see the days of the week like that, you explained how you see days and colors together.
Friday is orange.
Throughout last spring and early summer you wrestled with the slippery grip of anxiety. Within weeks it transformed you from a happy little boy into a child we barely recognized. You were frantic about everything from the wind chill factor to riding the bus, and simple daily activities like using the bathroom were overwhelming. You barely slept. Terrified, we watched as you started to disappear down a deep, dark hole, and we were powerless to lift you up and out. For two months you never laughed.
Little by little, we found solutions to release anxiety’s hold over your mind and spirit, and slowly you returned to your sunny self. I will never again take your smile for granted.
I realized something special this morning as I was writing this letter: for the first time in eight years, I am not panicking on your birthday. I don’t have a small pit in my stomach and a tiny voice in my head saying “He’s not where he should be, he’ll never catch up.” At your first birthday I worried you might never speak. When you blew out three candles I was preoccupied with your tantrums, and by the time you turned six I longed for a crystal ball to predict your future.
But today? Today, I’m thrilled to celebrate you, and I think I finally understand that you will always be in exactly the right place, no matter where you are.
This year, Jack, I want to share you with the world. I want people to understand the extraordinary gifts you offer as a result of your autism, and the colorful way in which you see life. You have a lot to teach us all.