My son Jack has autism.
He is seventeen years old.
Autism affects the way he eats, sleeps, thinks, and learns.
He gets agitated if there’s too much static on the radio and he doesn’t like hugs and he hates the beach.
When it comes to what causes autism, I’m pretty sure I have heard it all.
Mercury, lead, pesticides, plastics, automotive exhaust.
Poor maternal bonding, advanced paternal age, gluten.
Non-stick cookware, vaccines.
Yet, I believe autism is a genetic condition. I believe that my husband Joe’s DNA mixed up with my DNA and together we had a child who thinks in color.
Quite simply, Jack was born with it.
The truth is, I don’t care where it came from.
But I am kind of curious.
It doesn’t matter to me why Jack has autism.
But it might be good information to have.
I wouldn’t change a thing.
I might change a few things.
I celebrate autism and all of its spectacular wonder.
I hate autism because it has taken so much of what is rightfully his.
The ability to drive a car, go on a date, have a child, travel alone.
He is broken.
He is whole.
And round and round my mind goes—the proverbial hamster on a wheel.
I mean, you can understand my dilemma. If I start wondering aloud where this all came from, the notion of acceptance and compassion are dimmed in the spotlight.
This fragile house of glass we’ve been working so hard to build will explode into a thousand tiny pieces.
But on the other hand, it might be good to know what causes it.
At the same time, I don’t want to focus so much on the what and when and where and how that I forget about the who.
Who is he?
He is everything all at once. He is all of us.
He is a first date gone wrong, unrequited love, loneliness, longing, winter, and snow.
Mad dashes through the airport, warm cookies in the oven, medicine at bedtime, keys dropped in the rain.
A purple night, a yellow sunrise, a green summer morning.
He is every rejection, every promise, every hurt, every hope, all wrapped up inside of a boy.
He is the perfect intersection of science and humanity.
I know if compassion is a house you build, then storytelling is the key to the front door. It is the entrance to the rooms and the hallway and the kitchen.
It is the only way to open the windows and bring in the light.
So, I tell our story.
I offer it to you, the sun and the dark.
The chocolate chip cookies and the screaming and the pills in a small orange vial.
Some days, it is all I have to give.
I know defeat.
I know despair.
I know distance from my own child.
I know what it’s like to hurt for a loss that is not my own.
I know the quiet longing that comes with being different, because I see it every single day.
Yet as hard as it can be for me, I know it is a million times harder for him.
All of it. All of it is harder for him.
When I am swimming against the deep tide, this boy of mine struggling to breathe amidst the crashing surf.
When you live with someone who has autism, you say the phrase for now a lot.
For now, the radio is on the right station.
For now, he is sleeping.
For now, he is calm.
For now, he is safe.
For now, I believe Jack’s autism is the result of DNA and heredity. I believe he was born with it.
For now, I will try to add broad splashes of green and blue and purple and orange to science’s black and white brush strokes. Together, we will fill in autism’s canvas.
Upon this canvas, there is a house.
It is made of the most delicate glass.
If you look closer, you will see a sentence etched into the front door. This one sentence—this collection of eight words—well, they are very, very big.
They are a shored wall against a flood of uncertainty.
They are a million bright stars in an otherwise long, dark night.
They are peace and forgiveness, power and pride. They are everlasting absolution.
He’s exactly the way he’s supposed to be.
He doesn’t mind the salty waves. It’s the seagulls that scare him.
I will never know what this is like for him.