It's Important To Remember That Everybody's Autism Looks Different

by Alyson Herzig
Originally Published: 
A kid with autism holding a blue-white cookie in the shape of a puzzle piece.
sdominick / iStock

“Just as no two snowflakes are the same and everyone has a unique set of fingerprints, there are shades of autism,” I tell my 12-year-old son.

The older he gets the more aware he has become of others who hold the same diagnosis he does.

“Mom, this boy at tutoring is weird. He does stuff without asking the teachers. He just gets up and starts going through their things.”

I nod, and say little, knowing what is coming next. My eyes on the road.

“He has autism like me. Do I act weird too?”

Everyone’s autism is different. Remember I explained it’s a spectrum? Think of it like a rainbow. Some people are on one side of the rainbow keeping their eyes out for the pot of gold while others are just starting to lift off from the cloud. In between, there are all kinds of travelers.”

He’s quiet. He looks out the window of the car, processing what I said.

“Well, what about Teddy from school? He’s attacked kids, and he has autism. I don’t ever touch anyone else.”

“Yes, I know. His autism has manifested itself with violent outbursts.”

I steal myself for the next probing question. I try to keep my answers short and factual. He has a way of cutting through all the bullshit, so there’s no point in trying to serve any up. It’s one of my favorite things about him. The truth is his crutch.

“How do you know I have autism? If my autism is so different than all the kids I see, maybe I don’t have it.”

I grip the wheel tighter, preparing myself for this very important conversation. My son is too smart to answer with anything but the truth. I long for the days when a true, but vague answer would buy me time.

“Remember Dr. Kartright?” I said, referencing the expert who had diagnosed him just two years earlier.


“Remember all those tests and questions she and you spent the better part of a day working through? Well, that test is designed to identify autism. The questions are very specific, and based upon your answers, her observations, and the answers provided by me and Dad along with your school, she is able to say with certainty that you fall on the autism spectrum.”

The rain sprinkles on my windshield, and the quiet in the car is interrupted by the wipers swishing back and forth, erasing the droplets that just fell. The sun has set, and the darkness is enveloping us as the traffic lights shine brighter in the evening sky. He is again quiet, watching the rain fall and as the reminders of it are swooshed off the glass.

“How did I catch autism?” He asks.

“Well, you don’t catch it like the flu. You are born with it,” I say, grateful he comes to me with these questions instead of burying them deep.

“Why do I have autism and no one else in our family has it?”

“Well, you know how every person is made up of chromosomes, a collection of recessive and dominant genes? Like Dad has black hair and your aunt has blonde? Well, it’s just the way the genes are aligned that makes every person different, even if they have the same parents. It’s like how you love history and your sister doesn’t. It’s all those differences that make every one of us unique.”

He accepts my response.

Quietly we cross over the intersection, the rain hitting the car louder. My heart is full of ache for my son who is trying so hard to figure out where on the spectrum he falls. It’s a moving target and exponentially difficult to explain to a 12-year-old boy who just wants to understand this world and where he fits in it.

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