Dear Mr. Bernstein,
Hello, and welcome! I hear you are one of my son Jack’s teachers this year.
I thought I’d give you a week to kind of settle in before I presented you with the rundown.
You know what the rundown is, don’t you?
Oh, it’s just something we special-needs parents do at the start of every school year. It’s usually a letter, or maybe a little binder full of lists and explanations, where we describe our kiddos’ dislikes and likes and habits and peculiar behaviors.
My son Jack is fourteen, and he has autism.
I imagine you know this already, given that you have access to his paperwork and files and all that, but I still felt the need to say it.
He has autism.
He is the second of five kids.
His dad is a dentist.
The way I said that makes it sound like I’m not married to his dad. But I am. We have been married twenty years, in fact. When Jack was born we had been married six years, and I’m telling you right now that was not long enough.
I don’t know if you have kids, Mr. B., but generally they can be pretty hard on a relationship. One who cries for hours and never sleeps and bangs his head on the floor, well, that’s next-level right there.
We almost got divorced. I’m not even kidding. The chaos and the crying almost destroyed us.
And still, there are days when we both feel a little beaten down by autism and in the dark and scared and lonely. I cannot deny it. There is darkness, and I worry we won’t see our way out of it.
But we do. Somehow, we always find a way. We always find a way to laugh, and to hope, and to begin once more.
Anyway. Back to the rundown.
Jack wears glasses. He hates to take them off, because he can barely see a thing.
He talks to himself a lot. It’s kind of like a running commentary of every thought cycling through his brain at any given moment. This can be unnerving at times, especially when you realize he is talking about you.
Take the other day, for example. He was standing over me at my desk trying to convince me to let him bake brownies, when out of nowhere he announced, “Her hair. Looks very bad.”
I said, “Are you talking about me, Jack? My hair looks very bad?”
And he said, “Yes. For it does.”
Like many kids with autism, he engages in self-stimulating behavior to regulate his body. His go-to stim is usually jumping and hopping, but he lately he’s been twitching his right hand in the air until his fingers are all limp and wiggly.
I promise to believe half of what Jack tells me about you, if you believe none of what he tells you about me, especially if he says I was screaming something about lighting my own eyelashes on fire at bedtime the other night.
I mean, I would never do that. Light my eyelashes on fire.
You might have noticed by now that he doesn’t interact a whole lot with the other kids in school. If you can, try not to get too worked up about that.
See, I learned long ago my agenda is not his agenda. We don’t want the same things in life, and that is perfectly okay.
Ha! That’s a total lie.
The truth is, every day I ache for my solitary boy, dancing all alone to a beat no one else hears.
He hurts. I know he does. He hurts when he sees his brothers and sister fly out of the house to football games birthday parties and sleepovers. He hurts when
He hurts, and I don’t know how to help him.
He thinks in color. When you say today is Sunday he pictures a shiny-apple red.
Every Friday night he makes a bowl of popcorn for the family. See, that’s when we catch up on America’s Got Talent. He doesn’t watch it with us because he doesn’t like regular television shows—only movies. But he still makes the popcorn and he puts it on a tray, and, without a single word, he brings it into the living room for everyone.
At this point, our kids do not have phones—not even our high school sophomore, Joey.
I don’t know what to say about this, other than it just feels like a good thing for us right now.
It feels right for my kids to come home at the end of a long day of school and drama and take a deep breath. They can be exactly who they are in our house. They don’t have to answer a zillion group chats, or wonder if they’ve been left out of some party, or read about who has a crush on who in the middle school. They can leave all of that behind, and simply relax.
Is it inconvenient, this no-phone thing? I guess. Maybe. But the idea of handing my teenager a world with no boundaries, and instantaneous communication in the shape of a smart phone feels very scary. I mean, honestly, I know grown-ups who can’t handle social media.
You see, I have a son with special needs. And it forced me to look at things differently. I know that sounds like such a cliché, but it is the truth. In fact, there are times I wish everyone had the chance to raise a child like my son Jack.
I’m not saying he made me smarter.
I’m not saying he made me better.
I’m saying he made me braver.
He made me wonder if we could do things differently.
Do you ever wonder?
Do you ever wonder if you could do things differently?
The thing is, I believe in him. I believe one day he will do something interesting and surprising and great. I don’t know what that is just yet, but I am willing to wait.
Will you wait with me?
I believe in him.
I believe in us.
It’s going to be a great year.
It was a cold blue November Tuesday. The day he was diagnosed. I zipped his jacket all the way up, cozy-like, before we walked out of the office, and into our new life.