I talk a lot about my son Jack, and the day we officially learned he had autism.
It was a chilly afternoon in November.
The doctor’s office was small, and stuffy.
Jack whirled and jumped and spun around the room. He banged his shin on the filing cabinet and dropped to the floor and shrieked.
And the kindly doctor asked if Jack—if this mysterious, curious, wild boy of mine—ever came to me for comfort.
No. No he did not.
I can’t say at what point the doctor made his conclusion, but I do remember answering this very specific question and feeling my stomach sink.
Hearing a diagnosis for the first time, well, it’s like the earth slows on its axis for just a moment. Time stops. The colors around you become sharp, and bright, as though someone painted the sky with a teeny-tiny paintbrush.
Then, just as quickly, everything sets into motion again.
You put your jacket on and zip up his coat. You walk to the car, and buckle him into his seat.
You start to live a new life, one small zipper and car ride at a time.
Yet there is a strange, tender period in between the diagnosis and the new life part.
Now, you have to tell people.
Family, coworkers, friends, neighbors.
Teachers, babysitters, cousins.
The ladies at church, the librarian, the pharmacist.
This is very, very hard work. It is the kind of work that makes you feel naked, and exposed, and wholly unprepared.
I mean, here I was, clutching the paperwork with big words stamped across the whiteness. I barely understood the diagnosis myself. I was still learning.
How could I possibly tell people?
You know what would be nice? It would be nice if there was a little announcement you could print up and mail out for this sort of thing.
Perhaps a colorful postcard that says, listen, we just found out our son has autism and we might be a little weird and guarded for a while, feel free to drop off a casserole, or maybe a cheesecake.
Instead, we made phone calls.
I called my mother—a lifelong smoker at that point—and she took an audible drag on her cigarette and said, simply, “Oh my.”
I couldn’t blame her. I mean, what does a person say to this news? What is the correct response here?
You take care, now?
I suppose you could make a case for not-telling. After all, it’s nobody’s business how my son’s brain works! No one needs to know about the long nights in the dark, or the longer days chasing him through the parking lot of the grocery store.
I guess that seemed like a slippery slope to me. After all, it’s not as though we could hide in our house forever. At some point I would have to explain.
So I did the telling.
After a while, my voice got a little stronger. My spirit felt braver.
He has autism.
It took me nearly eight months to tell a stranger. Or strangers, plural.
We were at the Bronx Zoo.
It was crowded, and hot. Jack took every opportunity to run away from me. It’s amazing how fast a toddler can run.
When he wasn’t running into throngs of people with their own little kids, he was trying to grab half-eaten pretzels from the garbage cans, or snatch napkins off the hotdog carts.
He was terrified of the animals—all of them, the doe-eyed deer in their green valleys, the multicolored birds peering down from their perch. He screamed and banged his head every time we walked to a new display.
By the end of the afternoon, I was desperate. We were waiting in line for one last exhibit, and he squirmed and jumped and screeched and finally dropped to the ground and thrashed. I picked him like a potato sack under my arm while everyone stared.
I announced loudly that he had autism. And just like that, life snapped into focus.
He had autism and he was doing the best he could but the animals and the pretzels and the birds were all too much for him.
Life, sometimes, was too much for him.
Jack is sixteen now.
He still has autism.
I say it approximately 2,438,717 times a day.
It is the answer to every question mark—the beginning of every sentence.
He is trying.
We are trying.
We are learning, and living, and telling.
It turns out, the telling part is good. There is a special healing beauty in it.
It is my salvation, my repentance, my battle cry, my gulp of fresh blue air, all wrapped up inside of four words.
My son has autism.
I love him with the fiercest heart.