“To look deep into your child’s eyes and see in him both yourself and something utterly strange, and then to develop a zealous attachment to every aspect of him, is to achieve parenthood’s self-regarding, yet unselfish, abandon. It is astonishing how often such mutuality has been realized – how frequently parents who had supposed that they couldn’t care for an exceptional child discover that they can. The parental predisposition to love prevails in the most harrowing of circumstances. There is more imagination in the world than one might think.” – Andrew Solomon, “Far From the Tree”
“…That’s a classic sign of autism.” All of a sudden, I couldn’t breathe.
It’s been nearly ten years since Aidan was diagnosed with autism. The scene remains painfully sharp in my memory: I can still see the leaves of the trees through our living room window, the sun streaming through them in glints of green as the deceptively cheerful words from a gently smiling therapist floated across the room: “Do you see how he’s tiptoeing around the room? That’s a classic sign of autism.” All of a sudden, I couldn’t breathe. The room seemed to be slowing down, blurring around the edges. Part of me felt like laughing at the absurdity of this news. Autism? Ridiculous. Autism? Not my son. No way. Autism? Yes. Life, as we know it, is over.
Looking at Aidan now, I feel no trace of the surreal disbelief that permeated me to the core on that bright June day – it’s impossible to imagine Aidan without his autism. I used to dream that with enough schooling/therapy/vitamins/time Aidan would fight his way out of his diagnosis and into his “real” self: a boy, who talks about his day and calls his friends and fights with me about musical tastes and TV time. I had this vision of another person entirely separate from Aidan and was convinced that the autistic Aidan wasn’t really him. This perspective was tough for both of us. It took time for me to really meet Aidan in the Here and Now, rather than constantly chasing down his potential, future, “normal” self.
For Aidan, I think my acceptance of his autism must be an enormous relief
For Aidan, I think my acceptance of his autism must be an enormous relief; he no longer has to deal with a chronically-panicked mom. Not to say that I don’t still panic – he’ll have a bad day or a sleepless night and I’ll find myself skittering back into that dark place of “What will happen in the future?” and “What could I have done differently?” and “If only I’d had a million dollars, I could’ve….” I’ve learned to quiet these internal harpies of doubt and self-recrimination because in the end, they only undermine Aidan’s hard-won progress.
Is he high-functioning? No. But he’s capable of the greatest joy and hilarity I’ve ever seen in a human being. Do I know his prognosis? Nope. But I can imagine and help bring into being a future in which Aidan is as independent as possible. I don’t yet know what that future looks like, none of us do, whether or not we have a special needs child. But every day Aidan does something extraordinary, whether it’s saying a new word, resting his head on his little brother’s shoulder, or simply requiring of all of us that we put our expectations on a shelf and enjoy each other in all our true and imperfect glory.
When Aidan was first diagnosed with autism, I felt completely overwhelmed. If I knew then what I know now, here’s what I would have done.