At bedtime the other night, my soft bodied, totally brilliant 9-year-old son, with knock out eyelashes was recounting the travails of recess. My boy, his name is Nate.
In this episode, Leo, a kid in another fifth-grade class was throwing gravel at him and threatening him with some sort of racket. A bunch of other kids got involved and took Nate’s side, but he was shaken nonetheless. He tells me that Leo has real problems and can’t stop “sabotaging” his friendships. He tells me that he thinks that Leo is autistic.
I listen intently to the story, trying not to become homicidal about the daily playground dynamics. I do feel that I could go off some serious deep end most days over recess itself. He goes on to say that it is a good thing that Leo is in another class, because his class couldn’t handle two kids with autism. I ask him who in his class has autism. He says, “well me, mom, haven’t you noticed?”
I have noticed.
I have told and untold myself this truth for his whole life; dwelling in the safety of internal debate rather than facing the truth of him, my baby boy who snuggles up to me every night with details of his days, his observations, his anger, his idiosyncracies, his comforts, his discomforts.
I never thought that he would be the one to see my seemingly relentless internal dialogue with such plain, unabashed self-awareness.
Nate proceeds to tell me that he started to think that he has autism two years ago when he watched a documentary about Legos that described the role that Legos can play in helping autistic kids build friendships. He thought, at the time, “is that why I need Legos at school so badly?”
He went on to say that he has watched a few documentaries and read about the symptoms and he meets a lot of “diagnostic criteria, but not all of it.”
By his account, he says, “I understand sarcasm, but not irony. I can’t stand the texture of fruit. I am clumsy and suck at every single sport. I have a really hard time making friends, but I do know what people are thinking most of the time. I hate the smell of the cafeteria. Eye contact is super hard. I am obsessed with cars. I worry a lot.”
I finally answer his question, aloud for the first time, “Yes. I have noticed.” He asks me why I never said anything, wonders if I thought that he would be upset.” I said, “of course I wondered if you would be upset.”
“Why?” he asks.
This is the part where he really is right about his diagnosis. He asks “why,” because he is, in fact, neuro-atypical and doesn’t think of things in the same way that I do. All of these years of protecting him from this truth, and thereby really protecting myself, have been in the service of how my mind works, not his.
It turns out he is pretty psyched about this whole thing because some of his biggest heroes, according to his research, are on the spectrum. These include Elon Musk, who builds Tesla cars and is trying to single-handedly save our environment. And Thomas Jefferson, who had “shifty eyes” and the exact level of brilliance necessary to create the Declaration of Independence. Nate goes on to remind me of Mozart and Steve Jobs (who I would be really lost without).
I am never not surprised by parenting. Never. Nate started to walk the minute he turned 18 months, right as I was about to call early intervention. And he walked perfectly from the first step he took. Just when I started to assume he would never make a friend, he comes home with a bestie that he can’t stop talking about. When I start to worry that he lacks empathy, I see him have a conversation with his little brother that is infused with kindness and wisdom. When I start to panic about his introversion, he comes home having planned a 5K to raise funds for immigrant families.
This is the thing, parenting doesn’t make sense. And to be honest, autism doesn’t really either. But when Nate tells me that he is autistic and he knows it, I know he is right. And all information to the contrary is simply data that supports the complexity of who he is, not the denial of it. His autism is not like anyone else’s because it never could be. No two kids look the same. And one word cannot capture the variation that exists in how each brain develops differently.
What Nate has truly taught me is that looking away from what is painful is my parenting pathology and looking straight at something that is true is his kid strength. We are a team, really. I thought that he could never survive the truth of being on the spectrum, but it was the pitfalls of my neurotypical mind that tricked me into thinking that I knew everything. Yet, when we listen and look directly at our kids, the answers we need are right there.