I guess I’m wondering what you think of him.
I know I shouldn’t care, but I can’t help it. I do.
He doesn’t care, not one little bit. In fact, I don’t think he even notices when people stare at him or kids point to him.
I don’t care for the reasons you might think. I’m not self-conscious, or uncomfortable, or embarrassed—not in the least. I never have been, even when he throws tantrums because Redox doesn’t have the latest copy of Disney’s Cinderella.
No, I’m not embarrassed.
I’m curious what you think when you see us walk across the parking lot together and he is holding my hand. I mean, he’s not a toddler. Or even a preschooler. He’s practically a teenager and he’s almost as tall as me and he wears sneakers that are bigger than mine. And yet he holds my hand whenever we’re crossing the street or near cars.
If my hand isn’t free because I’m holding bags or whatever, then he tucks his arm through mine and hugs my elbow. He usually keeps his head down and stares at his feet.
Then all at once, he bursts into a flurry of motion and nervous tics. He rubs his nose. He pulls at his hair. He jumps.
What did you think when you saw him jumping?
I know you noticed it. That’s usually the first clue in the mystery game called What Is Wrong With That Boy?
You know, the way he hops all around, with his two fingers in his mouth. If he’s really agitated, he grunts once or twice.
What did you think, when you saw him do that? I couldn’t tell by the expression on your face. You were kind of half-smiling, but your eyes looked a little surprised.
Usually I keep my hand on his shoulder, or the middle of his back. This is to make sure he doesn’t bump into you, or tip over a display of canned beets, or knock over the little girl walking down the aisle. Sometimes I kind of massage his shoulder blades.
What do you think when you heard me talk to him quietly when we walked through the automatic doors?
See, he heard the classical music playing over the speakers and all of a sudden he hates classical music and he starts to hit his head with is hands if he hears it. I don’t know why except he tells me it reminds him of a time machine.
Can you tell what he has, or who he is?
There are moments—brief, short periods in the day—when he looks, well, regular. I hesitate to say normal here, but you know what I mean. His tics cease and his body is quiet and he isn’t shouting about how classical music hurts his ears.
Yet when he’s off, he looks very, very off—that’s kind of the code words his dad and I use to describe him.
Oh, Jack? He’s pretty off today.
Off can mean a bunch of things. It can mean he’s anxious, or jumping a lot, or swearing.
It can mean he hasn’t slept, or he’s hungry, or his sneakers are too small but he hasn’t figured out a way to tell me yet.
A lot of times when I talk to him say things like come on big boy and you got this buddy, but I’m trying to stop doing that so much. After all, he’s twelve, and even though emotionally he’s closer to seven or eight, it still seems silly—demeaning, almost—to call him my big boy.
A lot of times he stands very, very close to me and uses his left hand to twirl my hair until I flick his hand away impatiently. I have never liked people playing with my hair, ever when I was a little girl.
I know you can see something is different—not wrong, exactly—but unusual about him.
Maybe it’s the way my eyes are always darting around, looking for him and making sure he didn’t get distracted and wander away from me.
He’s always been a little bit of a wanderer, and although he seems to be outgrowing it I can never be too sure. He’s either right next to me, breathing in my ear and twirling my hair and telling me a million times that red apples are better than green apples, or he’s gone.
When he was four, I lost him in the mall. One second, he was by my side, and the next he was gone. He had disappeared like a cloud in the sky. I was frantic. He only said about twenty words at the time and he never, ever answered to his name and yet he was so fast, so silent, that I knew he could be anywhere.
I pictured him curling up inside of a storage cabinet somewhere and falling asleep.
I pictured him walking out of the big glass doors and stepping in front of a car.
I picture someone taking him.
This is a very awful memory for me, and my heart squeezes tight when I think about it.
He can appear absent, preoccupied. Behind his glasses, his blue eyes look vacant—aloof. It seems like he’s staring into space.
Do you think he’s dumb?
He isn’t dumb. Please don’t think that.
He is every question I have ever tried to answer.
He is the face of a statistic, the perfect-not-so-perfect combination of DNA, a time machine full of mystery and delight.
He is my son. And he has autism.
Talk to him. Talk to me. Ask us a question. Ask us anything.
Help me keep him safe.
Ask him which kind of Oreos he likes better and tell him where you were born and, if you have an extra few minutes, chat with him about your favorite kind of music.
After you finish talking with him and you pay for your milk and your eggs and your bread, then do one more thing for me. Please.
Tell your neighbor when you stand together at the end of your driveway, collecting your mail.
Tell your Aunt Marcia when she calls to ask if you can come to dinner next week.
Tell the mailman.
Tell your wife.
Tell them how today, you saw a 12-year old boy with autism in the grocery store, and he was interesting and funny and smart and handsome. Tell them about the statistics and the Oreos and his slow, sweet smile.
Tell them how high he can jump.