Have you ever met my son Jack?
The first thing people usually notice is his height. He stands over six feet tall.
He wears glasses.
He chews his fingernails a lot.
He jumps around, as if he’s dancing to music only he can hear.
The truth is, you don’t simply meet my son.
You experience him.
The cadence of his voice.
The way he moves his body.
The ragged cuticles, and the downcast eyes.
His eyes are blue. Not a brilliant blue, but softer, like an old denim jacket you’ve washed a bunch of times.
The second thing people notice is how he can turn the conversation back to the topic that interests him over and over again. It’s kind of uncanny.
Maybe you wanted to talk to him about the weather or the price of tomatoes or whatever and before you know it, you are engaged in a full-on conversation about why OxyClean Stain Remover is better than Tide.
You see, Jack has autism.
Contrary to everything that has been written or said about autism, Jack loves people. As long as you don’t get too close to him or try to reach out your hand on his shoulder or anything, he will sit and talk your ear off for hours about soda, or the different kinds of ice cream in Friendly’s, or laundry detergent.
He might ask you if you ever buy anything from Amazon, or if you know what synesthesia is.
He is convinced he has it. He stumbled upon an article describing the way some people see music and numbers and letters in color. Maybe he does have it. It’s hard to say.
The thing is, he can tell if you are really interested or not. It’s fascinating.
For a child whose emotional pendulum swings within a limited arc, he has a finely tuned antennae for those who are fake, or inauthentic, or simply humoring him.
He just knows. I can’t explain it.
Very important scientists and doctors will also lead you to believe people with autism lack empathy.
I hear that one a lot.
I hear, oh, you know, people diagnosed with autism lack empathy and they can’t feel compassionate or sympathetic because they are too wrapped up in their own world.
I don’t know. That’s not my experience.
I mean, could he be more sympathetic? Maybe. Probably.
But one time his sister fell off her bike in the driveway and he came in the house screaming for help and then he ran up the stairs to get a Band-aid.
And if I say I have a headache, he goes straight to the medicine cabinet to find Advil because he saw a commercial one time that said Advil is the number one over-the-counter pain reliever.
However, if you are standing in the way of the last piece of pizza and Jack is hungry, well, be careful.
It’s complicated, that’s what I am trying to tell you. The topic of empathy and compassion are hardly black and white.
If you see my son Jack, say hello.
Say hello like you would to any regular person you meet.
He is not regular.
But he wants to be.
Now that I am raising a child with autism, I realize how marginalized those with special needs are. In public, they are the receiver of stares, or averted eyes, or—my personal favorite—the throat-clearing-foot-shuffle.
Jack lives in the shadows. He is the background to your foreground—the sideline to your playing field.
He doesn’t want to be.
He just is.
If you meet my son, don’t clear your throat.
Or shuffle your feet.
You don’t need to say it louder than normal. He can hear you.
He just might take a beat longer than most to answer.
Wait for the beat.
You won’t be sorry.
Wait, and see where he takes you.
Who knows? You might learn about the latest flavor in Friendly’s, or how spiders live on every continent except Antarctica.
If you listen long enough, he will let you inside of his dreams.
He will tell you the first time he felt the sunrise light his face, and the last time he ate a hotdog.
He will explain how he sees Thursday as purple, and whenever a Beatles song comes on the radio, he imagines a soft, cool green.
See, every once in a while you experience a golden moment with this boy, when he stops what he is doing and you stop what you are doing and you look at one another and you just know.
You are the rarest of people he seeks.
In this golden sun moment, you will hurt for him, and you will hope for him, and the smallest part of you will begin to heal for him.
He will change your mind about all you once thought to be true.
Mom. Tomatoes. The price is for $2.99 for a pound.
For I do not like tomatoes. But you do. You love them.