I’d like to apologize for my son Jack’s behavior today.
He didn’t answer when you asked what grade he’s in or look up when you commented on his height.
Still you packed our bags cheerfully—the new pitcher for iced tea, the yellow placemats, the fragrant candles.
But I felt a tension settle over us like fog.
He’d been so patient. That’s the thing.
He waited quietly as I looked over the selection of candles and chose the placemats. He fidgeted with his glasses a few times and rubbed the bridge of his nose and talked to himself quietly, but he didn’t wander the store.
He’s been known to wander, this boy of mine.
By the time we got to the cash register, he was ready to leave. He’d had enough of the background music and the unfamiliar smells and waiting in line.
He didn’t answer you because he’s rude, or didn’t care about your questions.
He cares, deeply.
But this boy Jack has autism and very often autism interrupts the normal flow of things, if you will.
You don’t notice it right away. At first he seems like any other tall teenager shopping with his mother—a little shy, out of place, and awkward.
He doesn’t look like he has autism, because sometimes autism doesn’t have a look.
Autism is a little like a sweater. Sure, it’s a set of eight to ten qualities or characteristics, but each person on the bell curve wears it a little differently.
I tried to signal you, after you asked if he felt strong enough to carry all the bags.
I have several gestures and movements for the signaling.
I usually lead with the head-tilt-one-shoulder-shrug.
From there, I move to the wide-eye-bright-smile strategy.
If that doesn’t work, I mouth autism when he isn’t looking.
I have to be subtle about it, because at sixteen he gets a little cranky if I announce it. He didn’t care so much when he was little, but now he knows.
And who can blame him? How would I feel if someone made an announcement about me whenever I went to the store for some new placements.
Sad. I would feel sad. Then resentful, and bitter, and mad.
Yet he is none of things.
The problem is I have to do the announcing in order to clear up the confusion and spread autism awareness and help you see him for who he is.
I have to so you can stop thinking he is rude, and start understanding he is complicated.
After sixteen years alongside autism, I still find myself doing this several times a day.
Part of the problem is autism is an invisible diagnosis.
It lives within his mind and his spirit.
Most people don’t see it right away, just as you didn’t.
I get it, I do.
After all, treasures often go unnoticed.
And he is a treasure, he really is.
I mean, not all the time. Sometimes he shouts swear words that would curl your hair. He is very loud in the morning. And he expresses deep outrage if someone forgets the lyrics to a song.
But there are times when I look at him, and I think of all he tries for in the course of a day, and how hard he works to find the words within a conversation, and the way he chews his fingernails when he’s nervous.
He is a moment between the lines, a breath between notes—the space between heartbeats.
I don’t know how to be in this world with this boy and this autism and not hurt.
He is different. It’s true.
I wish we could normalize different so it is nothing more than good and right and whole and interesting.
I guess you could say I am always trying to build a bridge between the expected and the unexpected.
I want to cross that bridge with you.
I want to cross the bridge with everyone.
Because once we meet in the middle, I can tell you my truth.
I can tell how I kiss my husband lovingly goodbye as he leaves the house most mornings. I think of him fondly off and on throughout the day. Yet by the time he walks in the door at dinnertime, I can barely turn to look at him, because autism has worn me down to a shell of a person and I am tired and a little bitter.
I can tell how Jacks shrinks from my touch anytime I reach out to squeeze his shoulder or offer a tentative hug.
My son shrinks from me.
I don’t know how to find my way out of this.
But I will.
He is worth it.
Our story is ordinary.
Yet he can take your breath away.
I don’t want to apologize anymore.
I don’t want to hurt anymore.
I believe in him. I do.
He is so brave.