Telling My Son He Has Autism
By Julie Green
Photo © dubova/123RF
Nov 7, 2017
My son, Jackson, was three years old when he was diagnosed with autism. At the time, I almost considered his social gaucheness a blessing, because he failed to notice all the curious and blatantly judgmental looks directed at him. But those looks were not lost on me, his mom.
When I volunteered at school, kids would come right out and ask, “What’s wrong with him? He doesn’t look at me and doesn’t answer when I say his name.” After all, even five-year-olds can smell the faintest whiff of difference a mile away.
Fortunately, kindergarteners are an accepting lot. If they sensed that Jackson was an odd duck, at least they hadn’t written him off — yet. It was only a matter of time, though, until his behaviours were perceived as rude, apathetic or just plain weird. At some point in the not-so-distant future, his neurological difference would make him a pariah, or worse, a target.
By first grade the cracks were already showing. Jackson started to question why he couldn't be in a regular class like everyone else. Why don't I have friends? Why am I always getting into trouble? Once, he even uttered the words, "I am a bad boy."
There was no way in hell I would let him believe that. We have to have The Talk, I told my husband.
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Here we were, still years from puberty, about to broach a much more sensitive topic. We had to find a way to explain a condition as complex as autism spectrum disorder in a way that an almost-seven year old could grasp.
One evening at bath time, my husband went for it. He asked Jackson what he knew about autism. “We’re all pieces of the puzzle!” My son recalled the blue puzzle piece painted on his cheek for Autism Awareness Day. The memory excited him. This wasn’t going to be easy.
"Autism is the reason you can do math super quick in your head. ... Autism is also the reason you can’t throw a ball or ride a bike yet."
My hubby explained that some brains are wired differently. “Autism means that some things are much easier for you than they are for others, and some things are a lot harder.”
"Autism is the reason you can do math super quick in your head. It’s the reason you remember all the streets and house numbers you’ve ever been to. The reason you can recite books by heart and teach yourself alphabets in different languages. Autism is also the reason you can’t throw a ball or ride a bike yet. It’s the reason you cover your ears when toilets flush. And the reason you sometimes scream and hit yourself and others. It’s why you want to talk about the same thing all day long, and it's why you sometimes can’t understand what people are saying."
I brought over a towel. Out of the corner of my eye I watched Jackson in the bath. He blinked and carried on playing with his Sesame Street toy. I felt my shoulders drop. He’s not ready, I thought.
Then, his gaze still fixed on Elmo, he said, “When will I not have autism anymore?”
“Autism is a part of you,” I explained. “It’s not something you outgrow, honey. But as you get older, some things about it will change and become easier.”
He seemed to consider this for a while. “I will have endless autism.”
As the suds slowly dissolved around Jackson’s body, I realized The Talk wasn’t over. It would continue for years to come as we all grappled to understand the sweet little boy in the tub. But we had started the conversation, and for that I was glad.
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