We are almost a month into the new school year. You’ve probably figured out how to unlock your locker by now. You know where the library is, and you’ve made a few new friends.
Maybe you have the weird kid in your class.
You know, the one who has a grown-up standing around him all the time who is not the teacher, and he needs help during lunch and maybe shouts out answers in class before he raises his hand.
At recess, he pushes to the front of the line for the slide.
He hums to himself.
When you try to talk to him, he only talks about one subject—cars or soda or trains or street maps. No matter how many times you interrupt him to ask if he plays baseball, or likes ice cream, he always leads you back.
And then, just like that, he stops talking. He turns around, and he walks away, as if his very words have run out and he has nothing more to offer.
Maybe the rest of you all look at each other and roll your eyes or shake your heads because this kid is so weird.
Oh, I know all about the weird kid.
I am, shall we say, familiar with the humming.
And the street maps.
And the soda.
You see, the weird kid is my son.
His name is Jack.
Jack has a hard time waiting on lines.
He hates loud noises.
He doesn’t play baseball.
Jack has autism.
The grown-up-not-teacher is his aide. Or para-professional. He has a para-professional to help him throughout the day.
Imagine you everyone around you is speaking French.
You don’t speak French very well. In fact, you only know two or three words.
But everyone else knows French. That’s the thing. And it makes you feel frustrated—like you have a snowstorm swirling inside your ribcage and you don’t know why you don’t understand all the words, but you don’t.
You hear everyone around you talking—bonjour s’il vous plait—and you can’t keep up or make out the phrases and the snowstorm turns into a blizzard of longing, and resentment, and fear.
This the way my son feels every single day of his life.
It was raining when I learned Jack had autism. It was a gray, gloomy afternoon in November and as I knelt on the ground and zipped him into his blue jacket, I thought the sun might not shine again for a long time.
But it has. That’s the good thing.
Once in a while, the weird kid might get out of control. Out of nowhere, he might scream, or throw books, or yell at the teacher.
I know this is hard for you. I know it’s scary. Let me try to explain.
You know what the five senses are, right? You can count them on one hand.
Sight, sound, smell, taste, and touch.
For most of us, the senses are like a big puzzle. Our regulatory system—the part of our body that keeps ur heartbeats and our breath and our thoughts running smoothly—fits the pieces together so we can make sense of the world around us.
The thing is, our regulatory system is sneaky. It is what you might call behind the scenes. In fact, we don’t even know when it’s working.
Let me give you an example.
Let’s say you walked into your classroom tomorrow morning and you smelled the Sharpie marker your teacher used to write the day’s schedule. You might think, oh, that smells kind of nice.
When my son Jack walks into the same classroom, his regulatory system can get a little, oh, disorganized.
His brain might tell him the marker smells like smoke and what if there’s a fire drill and the alarm is so loud and what if the building really is on fire fire fire fire get out there is hot fire. Meanwhile, all the kids talking at once is making his brain tired and the lights above are too bright-buzzy-hot for his eyes.
See, you and I can integrate our five senses so we have an experience. We can fit the pieces of the puzzle together and read the board and smell the marker and hear the chatter and realize it’s just an ordinary morning in school.
Jack’s regulatory system is a little, uh, wonky. It does not integrate. His pieces do not always fit together nicely.
When it comes to autism, it’s kind of like math.
If you add the problems with the puzzle alongside the lack of French and the smell of smoke, well, there you have it—the perfect under-the-ribcage blizzard storm.
You have the weird kid who hits his head when it’s noisy, who dreads the fire alarm, who genuinely wants to know if you think Coke is more popular than Pepsi.
Have you ever seen a mosaic? You know, where a bunch of little pieces make up one big picture?
I think people can be like a mosaic, because we are made up of a bunch of tiny parts
We have ugly parts and happy parts and nervous parts. We can be mean one minute, and kind the next.
We are the history of our ancestors, the traditions of our families, and the genetics of our parents.
Yes, he can seem weird. This is true.
Deep down inside, we are all weird.
We just learned how to hide our weirdness from everyone.
Jack, he never learned how to hide.
Imagine a world where we never learn to hide.
I don’t know, maybe it’s achingly beautiful.
He thinks Pepsi is more popular.
I worry about him before I even open my eyes in the morning.