Every single day, Jack’s mother tries to climb inside his mind and understand how he thinks.
She listens to music through his ears.
She watches movies through his eyes.
She tells his story as if it is her own, because, of course, it is.
Once upon a time, when her son was diagnosed with the big scary all-in-capital-letters Autism Spectrum Disorder, this mother had to figure out who he was, and who he was not. Then she had to figure out how to explain him to the whole big world.
She told people he had autism.
She told them he needs to have dinner at the same time and he can’t wear tags in his shirt and he is very smart even though he talks kind of slowly.
For the longest time, she explained to people that her son is different, but not less.
After a while, though, she got tired of that explanation. She felt it wasn’t fair to her Jack-a-boo. She thought carefully about it, and she changed the song she sings. Now she says he is different, and he is equal.
He is equal.
Jack’s mother, well, she is determined to spread this message as far as she possibly can. She will do this for as long as she has breath in her body and a beat to her heart. She will not fail him.
Hi. I am Jack. We know each other from school. Do you remember? You used to come into my classroom and eat lunch with me and some of the other kids in my room. We played games. It was fun.
And after lunch was over, you left our room and went back to your own teacher and your own friends and your own day.
I wish I was more like you. I wish I had your easy walk and your fast words and your quick laugh. I wish I could open the door to the classroom and stroll back out into the hallway and high-five other boys and talk about the football game on Sunday.
I know you don’t wish you were more like me. No one wishes they were like me.
No one wants to jump around the room because they can’t keep their bodies still.
No one wants to feel tied so tightly to a schedule that the world might spin right out of control if bedtime is five minutes later than usual.
No one wants to take medicine to sleep at night.
No one wants to ride the short bus to school.
No one wants autism.
This for me is hard.
The thing is, wherever I go, autism follows. It is like my very own postscript at the bottom of a letter. It is the addendum to my life. When people say my name, they say it like this:
Oh, there’s Jack. (He has autism.)
Here comes Jack. (You know, he has autism.)
There’s this boy Jack at school. (They say he has autism.)
No one ever says, Oh, there’s Jack. He’s really good at baking.
Or, I know this kid Jack. He has a great memory.
Or even, There goes Jack. He’s a nice person.
I am, though. I am nice. And I make very good cakes and brownies, and if you tell me when your birthday is, I’ll remember it forever.
I have autism. It is a part of me. At the same time, I want you to know I am much bigger than this diagnosis. I am an entire person, with goals and dreams and hopes of my own.
I want to be a record producer in Los Angeles.
I hope one day I can drive a car but right now my mother says we have to wait and see.
You and me are different, but we are equal. We both deserve good things in our lives, like laughter, and love, and music. We both deserve respect. We both want to live happily-ever-after, whatever that may mean for each of us.
Me and you are equal, but we are different. Somehow, through the fateful twist of the genetic lottery, your brain got wired one way and my brain got wired another. I need small white pills so I can sleep, and I need kids like you to volunteer to eat lunch with me, so you can model how to make good conversation.
I want to ask you to do something for me. For just one moment, let me out of the room in which I am boxed. Let me walk by your side, free from the shame and confusion and panic that follow me around all day like uninvited guests.
How, you ask? How can you release me from autism’s unyielding parenthesis?
Well, that’s easy.
Don’t assume I am dumb.
Don’t assume I am bad.
Don’t assume I have something weird you can catch.
Treat me the way you treat everyone else. Do not make me your pet.
Do not share stories about how cute I am, or how I believe in Santa even though I’m a teenager, or tell people I am your little friend.
Talk to me. Learn about me. You see, everything I do has a purpose.
I jump because it feels like there are a thousand ants crawling all over my body. This is called self-stimulation.
I take medicine to quiet the slithering snake that winds around my soul each day. This is called anxiety.
I like my schedule because it makes me feel warm and calm and safe, like I am wrapped in a heavy blanket on the coldest winter day. This is called rigidity.
I ride the short bus because the big bus is too loud with all of the talking and shouting and backpacks falling everywhere and I get overwhelmed and I start to sweat. This is called sensory overload.
The next time you take a bite of chocolate cake, picture me in my kitchen, mixing up batter and pouring it into pans. This is called awareness.
Tell your friends about me. Tell them how perfect my memory is. Tell them how much I long to drive, and go to college. This is called advocacy.
Our journeys are not the same. I know this. Still, I hope you will walk beside me, shoulder to shoulder. And if I fall behind, please wait for me. I will catch up to you, and our footsteps will one again echo in unison as we follow life’s bumpy, exhilarating path.
After all, we are in search of the very same thing—a happily-ever-after of our very own.
This is called different, and equal.