Listen, I don’t want to pretend anymore.
You saw it and I saw it and there it sat, between us, like a giant elephant in the middle of Panera.
You saw him jump around with his fingers in his mouth. You noticed how his fingernails were red and raw.
You saw him talk to himself.
You saw me rest my hands on his shoulders in an attempt to help him be still while he ordered his macaroni and cheese in a bread bowl with a side of bread.
My Jack-a-boo does love his carbs.
My son is Jack. He is thirteen. He has autism.
I want you to know it’s no big deal. People stare at us all the time, so we’re pretty used to it by now. I mean, I am anyway. I don’t know about him. He’s never said anything about it.
Anyway, you didn’t exactly stare. You studied him for a few long seconds, and then you looked away.
I get it. It’s easier to look quickly and then pretend you didn’t see him at all.
It’s not like I can pretend. I can’t pretend he doesn’t have autism. How could I? How could I pretend like this is all some fake dream and he’s really going to be just fine and our lives will be regular? How can I pretend when I have to give him medicine every night just so he can sleep and I have to make sure he doesn’t wander away in the store or jump out in front of a car in a parking lot?
But the rest of the world does. The rest of the world clears their collective throats and glances down at their hands and looks away from the jumping.
Again, I get it. I really do. I mean, who wants to confront that head-on? Who wants to have the internal conversation about a boy they don’t even know?
What’s up with him?
He talks a little weird.
I wonder why he moves like that.
I don’t blame you, that’s what I’m trying to tell you. I just wish there was a universal sign I could make to let you know he has autism, like if I held up two fingers or maybe scratched the side of my nose.
I know, it’s hard to name and difficult to talk about and there’s no good way to ask the question.
Does he have autism?
Still, there must be something in between downcast eyes and staring. There must be something in the space of wonder and confusion—uncertainty and fascination.
And as far as I know, there is no universal sign, which means I have to try to whisper it really quietly over his head or catch your eye and kind of nod towards him.
He has, uh, autism.
You know, autism?
And if he hears me, then he will start to screech and shout that I am so embarrassing to him and he hates me and it all gets kind of awkward for a little bit.
Do not for. To talk about. My autism.
You see the position I am in, don’t you? Somewhere along the line, my son got the idea that his autism—a phenomenon that we tell him is as much a part of who he is as the freckle on his leg, or his long feet—is wrong.
He feels ashamed of this piece of himself, something that is little more than then a genetic twist of fate. As far as I can tell, it’s no one’s fault, least of all his.
I’m tired of pretending.
I’m tired of pretending that creating awareness is fun and enlightening and interesting and easy.
It’s not easy.
It is not always fun.
Sometimes it’s interesting.
Listen, I have been taking this boy into public for over thirteen years now. We have gone to restaurants and anniversary parties and middle school concerts. Sometimes it goes very, very well, and other times are a little, uh nerve-wracking, like night he screamed at me to shut up while the 5-th grade chorus sang Jingle Bells. But I don’t care. That is the truth. I don’t care what people think or if they stare.
I am kind of hard to embarrass. That’s what I am trying to tell you.
I am not embarrassed of him. Not in the very least.
I love him. I love him so much, you wouldn’t even believe it.
I don’t only love him, I hurt for him. It’s like someone took my heart out of my body, and now it’s walking around, vulnerable and exposed to the world, and I can’t protect it. I can’t say, hey! That’s my heart! Be gentle! Be kind!
Because we’re all just pretending.
We’re pretending we don’t see what’s right in front of us because it’s scary and weird and awkward and real.
This is my whole life, do you understand? I will spend the rest of my life explaining him to you and you to him. I will explain him to you, a lovely girl with the long dark hair working in Panera, and to your brother and your mother and your cousin and your teacher.
It’s complicated, this awareness thing. It’s like, I want people to like him for who he is, but understand what he has, and make room for the man we are trying to help him become.
Maybe it’s a smile. The thing between the downturned eyes and the stare. Just a small, simple, easy smile.
It can be enlightening.
He is my heart, wandering out there, in your world.
Her hair. Was so long.
It sure was, buddy, Here, take your tray, let’s find a seat.