“How old you is?” Henry asked, pointing his chubby finger in the woman’s face.
It was late afternoon, and we were waiting in the doctor’s office for Rose’s appointment. Henry had wandered up to an unsuspecting stranger while I was distracted with paperwork. As I made my way over to him, I frantically searched my purple pocketbook for a lollipop or a cigarette, anything to keep his mouth busy and to stop him from talking. Then I remembered: I cleaned all of the candy out of my purse when I did that stupid Paleo diet. And I don’t smoke.
“I say, how OLD is YOU?” he repeated, a little peeved that the woman wouldn’t give him an answer. Sheesh, I thought. Never mind a universal sign for autism; I need a universal sign for my-brother-has-autism-and-I’ve-learned-his-bad-habit-of-asking-people-uncomfortable-questions.
And really, I thought as I picked Henry up and carried him back to my chair, he has learned a lot from Jack. At three and a half, Henry can already tell the difference between a Toyota and a Honda; “Yook, Mom! It a Toyoya!” Within a few beats of a song on the radio he can distinguish “Nicki Minash” from “Wady Gaga”. He can spot license plates from two cars away, “It Assa-chu-setts!” (And we’ve learned that he might benefit from some speech therapy.)
I stroked Henry’s soft crew-cut and felt his body relax against mine as he sat on my lap, and I looked over at my other four children quietly stacking blocks into a complicated structure. I took a moment and thought about what else they’ve learned because of Jack and his autism.
Remarkably, they’ve each learned to alter the rhythm and pace of their words when they talk to Jack, to shorten sentences and speak directly. Somehow, they realized that Jack, throw ball is easier for him to process than Jack stop taking so long when will you throw the ball. Three boys and one girl understand how to connect his gaze with their own, how they can reach into his world and pull him towards them with look at me Jack, look at me, look in my eyes.
They’ve learned to go to him for anything mechanical, that he’s the master when it comes to things like stuck DVD’s and radios that need new batteries.
Sadly, they’ve learned to fade into the background during Jack’s tirades, to momentarily put their own wants and needs aside when he starts to tantrum over buying markers in Walgreens or sitting in a certain seat for breakfast. They’ve developed a sixth sense for the occasional chaos autism brings to a family; in those chaotic moments, they give us the time and space we need to manage him.
And when those moments have passed, they’ve learned to simply pick up where we left off, to resume the is dinner ready yet and can I play outside of our day.
But because of the tantrums, my other three sons and one daughter have learned to listen beyond his screams, to hear the hidden message behind his outrage. During one outburst over Jack wearing a jacket, my grown-up ears only heard no jacket no jacket no jacket but Joey’s brotherly ears heard that material is too scratchy it will make me crazy. Joey silently held out his own fleece for Jack to wear instead.
Although five-year old Rose is unaware of his diagnosis, I can tell she senses Jack is different. I can see it in the way she tenderly interacts with him, gently nudging his shoulder to share a joke, to make him laugh. I love watching the two of them snuggle together on the couch and play geography games on the IPad. From him, she learned that Georgia is known as the Peach State and that Russia is the largest country in the world. She’s learned to love different.
Joey’s learned to position himself between Jack and a world that doesn’t always understand Jack; last summer they were both waiting in line for a roller coaster ride at an amusement park. When the attendant asked Jack to step forward, it was Joey who actually stepped up and said “You’re talking too fast, he can’t understand you. He has autism,” before he turned back to his brother and said “Jack. It’s time. Let’s go!”
The other day I overheard Charlie asking Jack, “What color is today? Jack, what color?” Occasionally, they view the world through Jack’s unusual prism, and appreciate the different hues he brings to our days and our lives.
A few minutes later the woman in the doctor’s office got up from her chair and headed towards the door, interrupting my reverie. As she passed us by, Henry complained loudly, “She never tell me how OLD!”
“Don’t worry,” Jack assured him just as loudly. “I’ll ask her next time.”
And for a brief second, they locked eyes and flashed each other quick grins. It was just the sign I needed.
They’ve learned they are family.