My son Jack is diagnosed with autism. He is nineteen.
Over the years, I’ve heard a lot of explanations for autism.
Autism is caused by mercury.
Autism is caused by lead.
Autism begins with poor maternal bonding.
Pesticides may trigger autism.
Gluten aggravates autism spectrum disorder.
People with autism should eat more strawberries.
The maternal bonding one gets me every time. After he was born, Jack whined and cried for a solid year. He never slept.
I was exhausted. My husband and I fought constantly. For the first time, I could feel my marriage slipping away from me like sand through my fingers.
Jack is nineteen now. There is no one more bonded to this boy. And he still has autism.
He was born with it.
I believe autism is a genetic condition. I believe my husband’s DNA mixed up with my DNA and together we had a child who thinks Wednesday is orange.
One day I was in a coffee shop when a woman came up and introduced herself to me.
Jack was in fifth grade at the time. He was beginning the slow descent into the chaos that was puberty.
She touched my arm. “I wanted to tell you something. My daughter told me that a boy called Jack weird the other day in class.”
I cringed. “Oh, well, yes. That happens.”
“Lily said she told the boy that Jack isn’t weird. She told him he’s exactly the way he’s supposed to be.”
You can see the dilemma. If I start running around declaring autism an epidemic and trying to find out where it’s coming from and who started it and how to cure it, well, that sort of contradicts the whole message of acceptance and tolerance and open-mindedness.
This fragile glass house we’ve been working so hard to build over will explode into a thousand tiny pieces.
Yet perhaps it would be a good idea to know what causes it.
Although 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 makes people think he’s weird.
He is broken.
He is whole.
Autism is no one’s fault.
Maybe I should stop using Tupperware.
Maybe I should throw away our frying pan.
Maybe I should have loved him harder, deeper, more when he was a tiny, swaddled baby squirming in my arms.
Maybe this is my fault.
My feelings about Jack’s autism diagnosis are as complicated as a prism with a thousand colors and angles and light. Some days, my doubts are soft whispers within my heart. Other times, it’s as though someone is shouting in my ear.
I am not a scientist. I am a mother. I know autism from that angle. I know the disappointment and the fear. I know the quiet longing that comes with being different. I see it every single day.
When you live alongside autism, you say the phrase for now a lot.
For now, he’s not screaming.
For now, he’s sleeping.
For now, he’s safe.
So, for now, I’m going to believe Jack’s autism is because of DNA and RNA and heredity.
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 until a clearer picture comes forward.
I don’t know what that picture looks like yet. I imagine it is a utopia of sorts – the perfect intersection of science and people.
There are girls named Lily and tall boys named Jack.
If you look hard enough, you can see a glass house in the distance. It glints and sparkles in the sunlight. It is breathtaking.
There is 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.
The first time I heard them, I was standing in a coffee shop.
“He’s exactly the way he’s supposed to be.”