I have said it before, and I will say it again. I cannot teach my son to whisper.
My name is Carrie. I am married to a man named Joe and we have five kids and they are big and loud and sweet and funny.
I have been cooking for seven people during the quarantine, and I am not saying I deserve an award or anything, but I wouldn’t turn away a few compliments.
My second son has autism. His name is Jack.
Autism does not go away during a pandemic. If anything, it looms even larger. It demands patience, and compassion.
It also demands 5:30 am wake-up calls, and excellent Wi-Fi for checking the 10-day forecast every three seconds.
Autism is not Jack’s fault. Sometimes I worry he doesn’t know this.
Also, he won’t outgrow it. I think he does know this.
Once upon a time I thought he would. For years, this propelled me forward. But now I know.
I mean, no one stands around a cocktail party holding a sweaty glass in their hand and says, “Oh, I had autism when I was a kid.”
But autism is a lifelong—what, exactly? A diagnosis, a state-of-mind, a condition, a disorder.
Goodness, how I loathe the word disorder. When I hear it, I imagine a bunch of wires all crisscrossed and chaotic. Which, if I am being honest, is exactly what autism is at times.
It is also a boy.
I have never met anyone like him in my life.
When it comes to something like baking a cake, he has no intuition whatsoever. He never considers the possibility the cake may cook sooner, or oven temperatures vary. He reads the directions, sets the timer, and waits.
Yet when he meets someone for the first time, he knows in an instant how sincere they are. I mean, an instant. I have watched with my own eyeballs the way he either abruptly turns and walks away, or his face opens with warmth. You get a view of his back, or a welcome glow. There is no in-between here.
He is naïve.
He is brilliant.
He is earnest.
But he swears a lot.
He is many things at once.
His body resembles that of a man, while his spirit delights in the online app for Pizza Hut.
He is a mysterious riddle wrapped up in a boy.
Yes, he speaks loudly, but what he craves most is quiet.
A child of opposites, if you will.
A few years ago I read an article that explained if you stood in front of a painting alongside a person with autism, each of you would concentrate on very different things.
You or I might gaze at the entire picture—the way the horizon meets the water, and the boats bob along the blue waves.
More often than not, someone with autism will zero in on one small detail—the bright white of the sail, or a single cloud in the sky.
This is Jack exactly. He sees what the rest of us miss.
Last Thursday, from the rocking chair on our front porch, he finished tenth grade. He was so happy that he let me hug him, and he never lets me hug him.
I reached up and put my arms around his shoulders and for one second exactly, he let embrace him.
I have a child who shrinks from my touch.
At first this hurt me and it took a long time but I am mostly over it. Mostly.
Jack comes from what I call a place of no. His first response is always to reject, or refuse. He doesn’t want my help, or my comfort, or my love.
He doesn’t want to go swimming and he doesn’t want to wear a new shirt or try orange juice.
Until he does.
Until he turns the idea around and around in his mind like a penny in his pocket. Slowly, he softens the edges, and considers the shine.
I have learned to give him the space, and time for the edge-softening. This is no easy thing. It requires a lot of deep breathing.
You see, his rejection is always laced with a smidge of anger.
I get anger. I know anger. Anger feels good, and right. It lets me skip over all the feelings I don’t like—fear, vulnerability, uncertainty, worthlessness.
I’ve had a couple of hard, uncomfortable conversations this week.
I’ve read a lot of negative comments.
I live alongside autism. This has made me persistent, and brave.
When people tell me no, I couldn’t possibly understand because I am too privileged and self-centered and white and I have been blind to it all this time, I don’t care. I step forward again.
For one second exactly, let me embrace you.
I know who I am.
I know who I want to be.
Maybe it’s a disorder, but to me autism is a lesson in details, and sincerity, and not-whispering.
Also, deep breaths.