By the time my son Jack was about a year old, he demonstrated many of autism’s classic symptoms. And by classic, I mean the ones you read about on the websites and in the articles and all the medical pamphlets.
Limited eye contact.
No babbling, no cooing, or pointing.
Lack of joint attention.
Avoids or resists physical contact.
Yet there was another quality to him that I could not put my finger on, and I certainly couldn’t find on a website. He had a vacancy—almost a ghostliness—about him that alarmed me. He was nearly ethereal in the way he wandered around the house like a shadow, silent except for his ear-splitting tantrums.
We lived in a little brick colonial at the time, and we had the cutest kitchen with a small eating area off the back that was just big enough for our round oak table and four chairs. Every night we sat down for dinner—me, my husband Joe, 2-year old Joey and 1-year old Jack—and Joe would play a game with Jack to try to get him to guess who we each were.
“Jack! Look! This is Mommy! Do you see Mommy? Look at Mommy!”
I hated that game. I hated the way Joe poked his finger on top of my head and I hated watching Jack stare blankly at his plate or the ceiling or out the window—anywhere but at us.
I hated it because it reminded me—every night at my own dinner table, it reminded me—of my own child’s deep disconnect to me, to his brother, his father, and the world.
To Jack, we were less like his family and more like tools; a set of walking and talking hands that could pour him milk and turn on the television and push play to start his beloved Baby Einstein videos.
And then one day, he figured out how to open the milk himself. He learned how to work the remote control, and in the blink of an eye, he was tall enough to jam the slim silver disc into the player.
He needed us less and less, so he came to us less and less. Just like the old cliché, Jack marched to the beat of his own drum, and he marched alone. It was depressing.
Now he’s a great big 11-year old, and he still has a lot of autism’s classic characteristics.
Limited eye contact.
Delayed expressive language.
And he still has the same ghostliness, almost like he’s going through the motions but isn’t quite here with us. He recedes to the corners of the house any chance he gets.
Jack! Where are you?
Has anyone seen Jack?
Friendships seem meaningless.
He never says I love you.
He sits woodenly in church, at the dinner table, on the couch during family movie night.
He doesn’t need us.
It’s still depressing. We can remind him to look in our eyes and we can show him how to work the washing machine, and, the good Lord willing, someone can teach him how many cubes it takes to build a staircase with eleven steps if you need three cubes to build one step, but I don’t know if we can teach him how to love, or how to connect, or to be part of a family.
The other day I was cleaning up some stuff on my computer and I discovered a file called Cariello 2015.
To be honest, I cannot stand when my kids go my computer. It makes me crazy. I just switched to a Mac a few months ago and it took me long enough to get the settings the way I like them without the kids doinking around and messing it all up.
So, I was less than enthused to find some weird file I didn’t create in a program I never use. I clicked on it, tense and annoyed.
It was a movie Jack had made by going through the zillions of video clips and pictures I have stored on the computer. It took my breath away. It was like watching someone reach through an open window and whisper hello.
Hello, I am here. I have been here all along.
It’s our world through his eyes, an untold story of quiet connection and askance glances, pancakes at the kitchen counter and rainbows stretching across a wide blue sky.
It is a four-minute and fifty-four second celebration of family, and faith, and bright, sparkling friendship.
It is a tiny, moon-shaped sliver of hope for anybody who is living alongside of a shadow right this very minute.
It is climbing a long, steep staircase one step at a time until, over a decade later, I at last reached the top. And standing there with both feet planted on the final step, I could see for the first time a most brilliant truth.
There is no such thing as classic autism.
“Jack, look here. Look at Mommy.”
“Jack this is Joey. He is your brother. Your brother, Joey.”
Look at me, buddy. Look at me, look at Daddy. I am your daddy.”
He chose the music.
He chose the pictures.
He chose the order, and the timing, and the ending.
At last, he chose us to be his family.