I thought everyone would enjoy an update about how things are going with karate these days. I’m happy to report that it’s continued to be a huge success for Jack and our family.
In November, Jack took his first belt test and advanced to the yellow level. He’s enjoyed the new moves, and practices his high kicks and chops in the studio at and home. Each week he looks forward to putting on his uniform and helping to ring the gong at the beginning of class.
But perhaps his best karate achievement is that he goes on his own. Every Friday afternoon, the karate van picks Jack and his brothers and sister up from school, and brings them to their afterschool program, where they finish homework and take a regular class with a bunch of other kids. Because although Joe and I greatly enjoyed Cariello Karate—and I totally rocked that white uniform—our ultimate goal has always been to ease Jack into a more mainstream way of participating.
That being said, I was a wreck the first day he went without me.
At eight years old, he’s really gone anywhere unassisted, without the help of a para or an aide or me. What he threw a tantrum or wouldn’t put his uniform on or somehow slunk out the door to check out the license plates on cars in the parking lot? At exactly 3:00 I called the studio to check. With a smile in her voice, Miss Judy, the General Manager, told me, “He’s been great. He’s in class right now and very happy.”
When I picked him up he was bouncing with excitement. “We saw Nevada on the way here. Miss Judy saw it.” On the ride home he told me that he asked a boy wearing a green shirt what his name was, and the boy said, “Bob the Builder.”
“I think he was making a JOKE.”
Hearing the glee in my boy’s voice made me realize that his experience with karate is more than exercise and white uniforms and shouting Ki-YA. It’s jokes and social growth. It’s independence.
We’ve been seeing a family psychologist for about two years now, a wonderfully gifted and compassionate woman who helps us manage everything from Jack’s anxiety to his fear of fire drills and propensity for swear words at family reunions.
At our last appointment we were chatting about how far Jack’s come lately, his gains in language and social behavior. She went on to describe how guarded I was when we first met in 2011, how I wanted to wrap myself around Jack and protect him. As she talked, she lifted out of her seat and shifted her body to demonstrate just how I used myself as his shield, his armor, his mother-shell. She noted how I’ve started to step aside and let the world and Jack get to know each other.
Although I have never once concealed Jack’s diagnosis from a single person, never hid his autism or kept it a secret, in many ways I positioned myself as his mediator. This was not exactly a conscious decision—since he was an infant I’ve had to translate, interpret, decode for him and for those around him; he wants a cookie and the music is too loud and Jack wave good-bye wave you can do it wave.
As he got older it seemed like my need to interface became even greater. Because if I didn’t explain his need for zoomies and fear of fire drills at the school meetings, then who would? Someone needed to tell the cashier at Walgreens why Jack wanted to know how older her mother was and what kind of car she drove.
Watching our psychologist model my invisible shield for Jack made me think. For the longest time I thought the ever-present umbilical cord that connected he and I was for him and his benefit, but really I wanted to filter the world for him through my mother-lens, to interpret it so it made sense to his unusual mind. And likewise, I wanted to be the translator through which the world saw him. I needed people to look beyond his odd behavior and unusual movements; I needed them to understand the boy inside.
But slowly, surely, I am pulling back to reveal my son, to let those around us understand him as they will. And like a butterfly cocooned within autism, Jack is peeking out and testing the air with brightly colored wings. He is going to karate and meeting boys who make jokes.
Last Friday I picked the kids up from the studio after an afternoon of homework and dodge ball and air kicks. As I collected backpacks and uniforms and children, I saw Miss Judy bend close and whisper something in Jack’s ear. He looked over to me, a rare grin slowly spreading across his face. “Mom. Miss Judy saw a WYOMING license plate yesterday.” Miss Judy straightened up and smiled. “I was so excited when I saw it, and I couldn’t wait to tell him.”
As we drove out of the parking lot, the image of his seldom smile and conversation with Miss Judy reminded me yet again of a butterfly; fleeting, fragile, beautiful. A magical creature who draws people in again and again to marvel at the wonder within, whether the wonder is zoomies or a fascination with license plates or the ability to remember dates.
And like a butterfly in a stiff white uniform, Jack is tentatively flexing his vibrant new wings and telling the world Ki-YA.