There are many doctors who tell us autism is a diagnosis—an incurable disorder with many challenges.
They lecture about the way it can change a family, and destroy a marriage.
They are right about this.
At the same time, I know a boy who tells a different story.
Oh, not with his words or an essay or an argument or anything like that.
With his actions.
This boy, he doesn’t speak long, persuasive sentences to change your mind.
He hates to write.
Some days, he hates to talk.
Yet every Saturday morning he rounds up all the towels in our house, and he puts them in the washer. He adds detergent, and pushes the start button. As soon as they cycle to clean, he switches them to the dryer.
He waters the flowers on the front porch and down by the mailbox.
He makes scrambled eggs for breakfast, and bakes the best chocolate cake from scratch you’ve ever tasted in your life.
He asks me questions about autism now. This is new, the question thing.
See, even though he has known he has autism for about five years—since he was ten years old—we’ve never talked about the details. Sure, it’s a permanent part of our family’s landscape, and we are open about acknowledging it and all of that, but Jack and I have never really discussed it.
I welcome the questions, to be honest. I welcome the chance to talk with him about who he is, and who he might become.
Some are harder to answer than others.
The other day he wanted to know when he could start driving.
Right away I pictured the loud, heavy construction currently ripping apart the roads in our town—the orange detour signs that change my route every day, the men and women on the side of the asphalt signaling when to move and when to stop—and it is hard to imagine him handling that, to be honest.
So—because I never, ever learn my lesson when it comes to autism and literal thinking—I told my son we will cross that bridge when we come to it.
And he said what bridge he never asked about a bridge.
And I said it was an expression, remember how in school he learned about expressions and idioms and metaphors?
He said yes, of course. Of course he remembered but where was the bridge anyway.
I told him never mind about the bridge because I was tired of talking about it. I never wound up answering him about driving.
The thing is, Jack does not realize autism may have stolen a few milestones from him. He has an older brother named Joseph, you see. Joseph drives a car and has a job and maybe even a girlfriend.
Jack, too, believes he deserves these things in life. And he does—he most certainly does. I just don’t quite know how to give them to him.
The other day he decided he needed a job. He used my laptop to research local restaurants, and he found one with an application online. He checked the printer to make sure there was enough paper, and he printed out two pages of questions.
He sat at the counter with a pen in his hands and carefully he filled in the blanks for his name, and his address, and our phone number.
He wasn’t too sure about the citizenship part. I assured him that he is, indeed, a citizen of the United States.
He would like to make fifty dollars a week.
When I watched him write out his answers, I kept wondering how this would work. After all, there is no space on the application to write if you have autism.
What if he got hired somewhere? Would he be able to attend to a task for longer than ten minutes? Could he stay motivated?
What if he couldn’t do it?
What if he yelled a bad word because he got frustrated?
So many what-ifs with autism. In fact, if you strung them all together, it would be enough to pave a trail to the moon.
He can do things. If you just tell him slowly or maybe write it on a piece of paper. The piece of paper might be better, actually. It is good if has something to refer to. He does well with a list, that’s what I am trying to say.
It took three tries to complete the application. Three tries before he wrote it all neatly and didn’t have any cross outs or inky blobs or parts that were hard to read.
Then he carefully put one paper on top of the other and used a paperclip from his father’s desk to clip them neatly together. He laid them gently on the counter.
If that doesn’t break your heart and make it sing and soar and hope and love, well, I don’t know what will.
It’s the paperclips. They get me every time. Whether it’s movie tickets, or the odd homework assignment, or even lists of songs he wants to buy on iTunes, he always fastens them together that way.
It shows a meticulous side to a chaotic brain—an attempt to organize the anxiety, and the worry, and the perpetual mental disquiet inhabiting his mind like uninvited guests at a party.
He asked me why he has this autism, when his three brothers and one sister do not.
I started to explain wonky genetics and percentages and a bell curve.
Then I simply said I do not know. I do not know, and this is the truth.
I do not know why God or the universe or fate or genetics selected him to be the child who can start a washing machine, but may not be able to drive a car.
Is it unfair?
Well, of course it is.
But it doesn’t even matter anymore.
Time and time again, he invites me into his world.
Time and time again, I stuff him into mine.
What is the answer here?
A little of both, I suppose.
Who am I now?
Who can I be?
Underneath all of the questions, I think this is what he is really asking me.
His brother took him to drop off the application. For half an hour he paced the floor and rubbed his hands together while he waited for Joey to finish up in the shower and drive him into town.
Holding the papers between his hands, he walked out the door to claim what is rightfully his.
Who can guess what that is?
Clean, fluffy towels warm from the dryer?
Bright summer flowers in full bloom?
Who knows? Maybe even the moon.