Last Wednesday I made a birthday lunch for my dear friend and long-time running partner. Around 2:00 we were all enjoying some cake and conversation when the school nurse called to say Jack had a terrible nosebleed, and asked if I could come pick him up. I’ll admit it: I was a little peeved to cut the afternoon short. (I was especially peeved to cut my cake-eating short.)
I bustled Henry into the car and decided to get all four of the kids at the same time. Driving out of the school parking lot I had a brilliant idea–I would use this extra pocket of time to take them for hair cuts at the local barbershop. They hate haircuts. Especially, as one might imagine, Jack. “Hair cuts?” he screamed from the back of the car. “WORD RECOGNITION and a NOSEBLEED and HAIR CUTS? This is the worst day EVER!” I had no idea what he meant by word recognition, I could barely hear him over the din of five kids complaining.
Home later that afternoon, Jack sidled up to me as I was working on my computer. “Mrs. B. broke my heart today,” he said sadly. “I need to move on from her.” I turned to pull him on my lap and ask why, why he was so sad. “Because. She made me finish my work.” I explained that every teacher would make him finish his work, and even if his heart felt broken his brain was getting stronger. Without another word he got off my lap and walked out of the room. Turning back to my computer, I congratulated myself for the way I’d handled his complaint. He has to learn that work is a part of school.
On a whim, I e-mailed his teacher to share the story. Not long after, she wrote back, explaining there was more to this, there had been a misunderstanding that afternoon. His entire class was going into another third-grade room for an activity called Word Recognition. Jack was very excited for two reasons: the girl he has a crush on is in this class, and he adores the other teacher. But, as luck would have it, he was scheduled for speech at exactly the same time and couldn’t go.
The afternoon ended with lots of indignant tears, a bloody nose, and a broken heart.
We all have our own agendas with Jack. His speech therapist wants to teach him how to make conversation, the occupational therapist needs him to grip his pencil the right way and know how to get his “zoomies” out. His teacher works to help him maintain academic standards and learn how to spell words like dither and segregation. And Joe and I want him to engage with our family and lead a full life. And someday, maybe walk within two feet of a dog without screaming.
But at the center of this Bermuda triangle of parents and teachers and therapists stands an earnest little boy; a little boy named Jack who desperately wants to hold his pencil right and learn what dither means and know how to say hello how are you instead of how many people can your car fit. He wants to do Word Recognition with the rest of the third graders.
And his heart his fragile.
A few days later we were alone in the car, and Jack asked me if his five-year old sister, Rose, goes to speech. I said no, she does not have speech. Next he asked if she has an aide, and I answered that no, she doesn’t have an aide. And then, very quietly, he asked a third question: “Why do I have an aide and other kids don’t?” I took a deep breath and stayed silent for a moment. Lacking a clear answer myself, I turned the question on him: “Why do you think you have an aide?”
“Because. Some things are hard for me.”
I agreed, yes, some things are harder for him. And driving to the grocery store, I was ready to have a full conversation about the things he finds hard, the things he enjoys, the things that scare him. I was ready to talk about his autism.
But, like most conversations with Jack, this one was very brief and ended when he decided it was over. “No more TALKING! Turn up the radio.”
Joe and I haven’t really considered a strategy for explaining to Jack that he has autism; we figured it will be apparent when he’s ready to know. But I have a feeling that the time is coming soon, because slowly but surely, Jack is learning that he’s not quite like all the others. He’s learning he needs an aide to help him navigate his day, and that other kids are mastering the art of pencil-gripping and conversation-making faster than him. He’s learning he has to go to speech while everyone else gets to enjoy word recognition. And this is breaking his heart.
And though I’m very ready for Jack to learn about his diagnosis, to understand he has a beautiful, mysterious thing called autism, I’m not quite ready for him to know he’s different, unusual, not typical.
Because I’m pretty sure those are words he’ll recognize.