Editor’s note: My son Jack has autism. He is seventeen.
He just finished a summer program at a college designed for unusual learners. He was there for nearly three weeks.
It was hard. Then it was better. And in the end, it was good.
For me. I don’t want this. I don’t want to stay here.
Jack-a-boo, I’ve never watched from the bleachers, and cheered for you to hit a homerun.
I’ve never sat in a stuffy middle-school gym and hoped you’d spell the word paragraph into a microphone.
Still, I root for you.
Mom. I am missing. My family.
When it comes to autism, nothing comes easily. Every single step forward is hard-won, and shrouded in conflict.
This makes me very mad.
I resent it.
Yet at the same time I feel a tiny bit grateful. I am grateful to know what you have, and who you are.
Around and around my mind goes—resentment, gratitude, resentment, gratitude—two tigers eyeing and circling one another for space, until each are too tired to move.
It’s easy to assume rooting for someone is akin to being a cheerleader—all sparkly pom-poms and glittery applause.
It’s not though. It’s more like the proverbial seed of a tree, deep underground in the damp earth.
Constantly I push and listen and urge you to break through the soil, and tentatively reach your fingertips to the sky.
Maybe today. Is a little bit better.
I believe in you.
I believe in you until people think I’m nuts, or crazy, or just plain out of my mind. Then I believe some more.
And I can’t back down. This might be the hardest part.
I can’t back down if I think you can do it.
I can’t back down in the face of meltdowns or complaints or fear, even when my heart is shattering beneath my ribcage.
Mom. For me. This is hard.
I am constantly trying to figure out how hard to push without breaking—how to stretch you further and further without splintering your spirit.
You see, I root for the underdog. I root for the boy who longs to understand why the world works the way it does.
Sometimes I wonder if I should have moved on by now—if I should have put the diagnosis behind me and stopped thinking and writing and talking about it so much.
The problem is, moving on implies skipping over all that is ordinary/sad/good when it comes to the hard business of growing a tree.
If autism has taught me anything, it’s there are no shortcuts. We have to do the work.
It’s stupid. I know.
It’s stupid that there are no trophies or medals or awards for the kids who try the hardest—those who watch from the sidelines and jump through the classroom and can spell words with their eyes closed but are unable to speak.
This diagnosis is a long road—the marathon before the sprint. Progress is in the details.
I sat today at lunch. With some kids.
You see, it’s easy to root for the soccer star, or the champion of the spelling bee.
It is easy to rise to our feet and clap for a touchdown, or quietly applaud the one who has a solo in the band.
We can’t move on, it’s true, but we can move forward.
We talked. About movies.
I root for you.
You are seventeen years old.
And you are afraid all the time.
Not monsters-under-the bed afraid, or spiders-on-the-ceiling afraid.
More like flight-or-fight-deep-unease afraid.
I root for you, as you wake up every single morning and you face your afraid-ness.
I root for you, diagnosis and all.
I root for your sleep, and your happiness, and your peace.
You are unlike anyone I have ever known.
Autism weighs you down—a force of gravity pulling you toward isolation, and loneliness, and struggle. Constantly, it winds its vines around your soul, and beckons you back underground.
You fight against it. I see it. I see the way you push against the pull and try your hardest to free yourself.
I am learning.
I root for you, my son. I do. I’ve simply learned to root for different things.
I root for exactly who you are, and the person you may become.
The thing is, you are more than a statistic. You are a story.
You are a bigger than a diagnosis. You are a discovery.
Jack-a-boo, I don’t know what the finish line looks like, or if there even is one.
I only know that in your way, and your own time, you will do good things.
After all, even the tallest trees learn to sway in the wind.