My son Jack has autism. He is sixteen.
Autism is defined as a broad range of conditions characterized by challenges with social skills, repetitive behaviors, speech, and nonverbal communication.
It is said people with autism lack empathy.
It is said they have trouble making eye contact.
It is said.
Sometimes I wonder what it would be like if everyone assumed they knew who I was, before they even met me?
How would it feel if they assumed they understood way I think, and feel, and behave, based on a diagnosis typed upon a piece of paper?
How long would it take for me to believe these assumptions, and wear them as my own?
At sixteen, he still has trouble reading facial expressions and understanding social dynamics.
He mixes up his words so, like a vocabulary detective, you have to decode his sentences.
There is no question he has autism, is what I’m trying to say.
And yet, there are other ways he doesn’t fit the spectrum stereotype.
Does he have empathy? It’s hard to say. In the dictionary there is a big, fancy definition of empathy with words like explicitly understanding feelings in past or present. I do not know how to find Jack inside these ideas.
But if his father cuts his finger slicing tomatoes, he runs to get a Band-Aid. And if you announce you have a headache, a bottle of Advil will magically appear at your elbow, along with a glass of water.
What if empathy is nothing more than looking outside of oneself, to remove the injury or pain of another?
What if it’s as simple as a cold glass of water?
If you get the chance to talk to my son, he will make you feel like you are the only person standing in the room.
Without lifting his eyes, he will ask you about your foreign exchange student, your plans for the Fourth of July, your mother, your necklace, your baby, your car.
He doesn’t want to make small talk, or exchange pleasantries. They mean nothing to him.
He wants to know you.
He wants to know what you think about the political debates, and the wildfires in Oregon, and the spider population in Brazil.
He will not give you a second chance. I need to be clear about this. If you don’t answer him honestly, or you seem distracted, he will simply turn around and walk away.
You have to show him your true self. The way he shows himself to you.
He never tries to hide.
He never tries to be anyone other than who he is.
Time slows down when you are with him. In fact, the world nearly stops on its axis. This is because you have to wait for him. You have to wait for what he has to say, and in that moment, minutes mean nothing and you have nowhere else to go and nothing else to do but to listen.
He is the strongest person I know.
It’s not strength the way we usually think of strength. He doesn’t lift big weights or pump iron or drink protein shakes.
And yet, he is a fighter.
He fights, even when there are no boxing gloves.
The ring is empty—the opponent, invisible.
He fights discrimination. He fights the expectation of normal. He fights the wolf of anxiety as it beckons and bids.
Like the pull of gravity upon the earth, constantly he fights the inner voice of the spectrum disorder—the gentle whisper of isolation, and solitude.
Our rules don’t make sense to him.
Why do we shake hands when we meet someone new?
Why do women wear lipstick, and men wear ties?
Why do we say hello when we answer the phone, and gesundheit for a sneeze?
He is the question mark at the end of every sentence.
I would give anything—anything—to understand the way he thinks.
He is true, and honest, and pure.
He is vulnerable.
I am raising a vulnerable child—a boy who will become a man who believes people are good, and the world is fair.
He is afraid, yet he is naïve.
This is an unlikely, bittersweet combination.
He is terrified to answer the door.
He is easily persuaded by advertisements.
He screams if a truck backfires on the street.
He will tell strangers where he lives.
How do you teach skepticism, and doubt, and instinct? For the life of me, I do not know.
I do not know how to keep him safe.
He is trying.
All the time, he is trying.
In just a few moments, he will change you.
He will change everything you thought about yourself, and the autism spectrum disorder, and your life, and cheeseburgers.
He loves cheeseburgers but no lettuce or tomato or pickles, you see.
You have to give him a chance. You have to join him in his space, and meet him where he is.
Please, give him a chance.
Did you know gesundheit means health in German?
Mom, I put ice. In your water. For coldness.
He changed the rules.
He is changing the rules.