My son Jack has what important people call high-functioning autism.
Although not an official medical term, high-functioning autism essentially means he can speak, read, write, and has some basic life skills.
In other words, he can fly under the radar and look a little, well, regular. That is, until he opens his mouth or takes a step forward.
In other words, for a split second, it’s difficult to tell if he has autism.
Would you know?
I think so.
Yes. I think you would.
At first you might find him a little rude.
He has this habit, you see, of meeting new people and starting up a conversation without any preamble whatsoever. He’ll probably ask you about your favorite soda. He used to ask strangers if their mother was still alive, so I consider the leap to Dr. Pepper a win.
The other day I had to take him to Urgent Care—the kind of place that will see you without an appointment if your regular doctor can’t fit you in—and as soon as we sat down I had to do the whole throat-clearing-head-nodding so the intake person might understand the reason why Jack kept announcing Oxy Stain Remover is the best.
I had to take him because he has a terrible, awful cough that seems to originate from the very depths of his soul. And in keeping with his high-functioning autism, he is not subtle about said cough. Oh no, he is not.
He takes a giant breath and opens his mouth and lets loose on the closet thing to him—a buffet table, an elevator full of strangers, a newborn baby,
Perhaps you are wondering why I haven’t gently reminded my big tall son to stop coughing all over the place, to cough into his elbow or maybe walk away for a moment. You are right to wonder this.
But I have reminded him! I promise you, I have!
That’s the thing about autism. Whatever needs to happen in the moment, will happen in the moment. Like a steam train gathering speed, there is no changing course on the inevitable, be it a cough, or a swear word, or an honest explanation about why Tide simply doesn’t get the job done on those tough stains.
When the nurse retrieved us from the waiting room and she asked him to step on the scale and he misunderstood her and stared blankly at the wall, I had to start all over again.
I cleared my throat, nodded my head toward him and shrugged my shoulders in the classic hey-I’m-sorry-about-all-that-he-has-autism gesture.
After a few minutes, the young doctor came in the exam room. She looked his eyes and ears and nose, and he asked her what she saw and she told him she saw boogers and he told her that was enough of that kind of talk.
Cue throat clearing and head nodding and please, please tell me you understand what we’re dealing with here.
We are dealing with autism, that’s what we’re dealing with here, in this room, in this life, with this boy.
We’re dealing with a boy who does not always—or ever, If we’re being honest—read social situations correctly, who hears the word booger and remembers the time he said that during dinner and we told him that was enough of that kind of talk.
Did you know his spirit is pulled by the moon?
Listen, I am not really into astrology. I don’t even know that much about it. But I do know that something about the moon affects my son.
He is becomes agitated when the it’s full. He stops sleeping and he chews his nails even more than usual and he becomes particularly obsessive about random topics. When this happens, I look up into the deep night sky, and there it is. A smooth, seductive moon, bursting with light.
Would you know he had autism, if you were seeing him for the first time?
I hope so.
That would be great, to tell you the truth.
I want you to know.
I want you to know because I am not ashamed of it, or him.
I want you to know so we can get rid of the whole throat-clearing and head-nodding part.
I want you to know autism occupies a space at our dinner table, and it sits our couch when we watch TV, and in the car while we drive through town.
I see everything through his eyes now, even when I don’t want to—when I wish I could turn it all off for one second.
Like the time a man in airport security was barking orders, the sharp staccato beat of his voice claiming the very air around him.
“People, everything out of your pockets—and I mean everything—the other day, Jesus, we had this dude who left a pen in his pocket. And I said everything out of your pocket right now. He looked at me like I wasn’t even speakin’ the language, you know?”
My son doesn’t speak the language.
He might leave a pen in his pocket.
How can he possible ever travel through an airport on his own?
He won’t, that’s how.
I guess the question is, would I change the world for him or him for the world and round and round I go on my cerebral carousel.
In some dramatic fashion, I hold his life in my hands.
Not life as in life-or-death, more like quality of life—will anyone ever understand the person he is?
Would you know?
Would you recognize all I hold dear and tender and true?
I always wonder what people notice first.
Maybe the way he holds my hand when we cross the parking lot. All fifteen years, six-feet, two inches of him, clasping his fingers between mine. That’s a red flag, right there.
Or maybe how he claps his hands over his ears if a truck goes by, or someone drops a glass on the floor.
Would you know?
I hope so.
I hope you will see this boy of mine, and know in an instant.
Then I hope you won’t care.
I hope you will tip your head towards his and answer yes—yes!—you do like Dr. Pepper.
Because if you know, I can breathe.
Then the merry-go-round that circles my brain all day all week all month all year might slow.
I can’t change the world.
I can’t change him.
But I can I do a tiny bit of both.
It has to be both.
Mean moon, hopeful moon, shiny circle of light.
May this month be the month
you smile down kindly
from the ink of your sky.