Every year in April I like to reflect on autism and our journey.April is Autism Awareness month, and with two boys on the spectrum, it’s nice to look back on where we’ve been and where we’re headed.
One of the things I’ve discovered as an autism parent is this: autism is everywhere. Before our first son was diagnosed our pediatrician said he may just be “quirky” and now whenever I see someone who is quirky I wonder. Like the seventy something that walked past me at the grocery store smiled and said beep beep beep. Like the teenager who can’t stop touching the crayons in the doctor’s office. Like the toddler at the library reciting the countries on a map.
I see it now.
The quirks aren’t terrible. In fact, sometimes they’re incredible. Sometimes they are gifts. When Aiden was a year old, my Mom bought him a set of toddler flash cards and laminated them. At the time, I thought it was a bit silly. But he brought them over to me one day and I went along with it. I’d show him the card and tell him the colour, shape, or number. I didn’t think much of it until a few days later I heard him rummaging through a box and chattering to himself in his cute little baby voice. I glanced over and couldn’t believe what I was seeing. He pulled out the three cards and laid them on the floor. He picked up the first card and said, green, oh green!” He looked at me and smiled. Realizing I was watching him, he brought the cards over and laid them beside me. He repeated what he’d just said. Then picked up the second card. “Pear. Pear is green.” Then the third card. “One. I see one pear.” I picked up all the cards then and showed him each card. He recited every single one.
It’s one of my favourite Aiden memories. While other parents had playdates and dress up, I had a little smarty pants. Sure, he wasn’t great at playing with other kids. And when he did okay with toys, he didn’t always play with them as others would. But right then, as he chattered about his flash cards, I didn’t even care. In fact, I never really noticed.
Before we knew, he was just Aiden. He did some goody things, but we didn’t ask questions. When he wore shorts with rubber boots because that’s what he felt was comfortable, we didn’t think it was important. When he cried in October as I packed away his beloved shorts, it didn’t register for me as a problem area. I just sat him down and explained why we couldn’t wear shorts in Canada with winter on the horizon. He still cried uncontrollably at the injustice of it all, until we settled on having his beloved bear he named Bob wear the shorts. In that moment, I didn’t even realize I was using an autism strategy. In that moment, I was just being a Mom.
Fast forward a year or so and kindergarten arrived. He was so excited. On the first day of school he woke up at 5 a.m. and got dressed and woke me up for breakfast. He was devastated to learn he still had to wait several hours before it was time. When we walked the twenty minutes to school I could barely keep up. His little red backpack was hung on his hook and his shoes tucked away in his cubby. One last squeeze before he started. And that’s where the good memories of kindergarten stopped. And where autism became a real, living thing in our lives.
I could go on about the negative things that autism brings. But today, I want to focus on the positive. So I’ll shift my focus to another little boy…
Eternal Sunshine. That is how I would describe my Micah. Ever since he was a tiny little baby he would wake up happy. He still does. Granted, he wakes up way before anyone else in the house. And if I am being honest, it’s sometimes hard to be happy with him when he wakes up at the crack of dawn – but his happiness has brought me joy for almost a decade. He gets excited about every little thing. Each day is full of possibilities. He is imaginative, he is creative, he is a beautiful soul – and he’s also autistic.
His story is so different from his brother’s. Autism is everywhere, but no two autistic people are the same. It is a very diverse spectrum. What is evident for one is not for another. We didn’t notice any similarities between the two, so it was a bit unexpected when Micah was diagnosed. I struggled with it at first, but then I realized something – it doesn’t define who he is.
When he was younger, he used to be the first one to be able to bring Aiden back from a meltdown. I remember one day, Aiden was in his room wrapped up in the curtains sobbing. I don’t remember what the meltdown was about. I don’t remember how Micah came to be there with us. But he walked up to his brother, wrapped his arms around him and squeezed him as hard as a little four year old boy could squeeze. Aiden stopped crying and came out of the curtain and a few minutes later, they were noisily playing with their trains in the playroom.
One afternoon, a little boy was walking home from school when he fell off his bike in front of our house and scraped his knee and hurt his arm. Micah was the first to run over to him and sit beside him. Putting his little arms around him, he comforted him. In his powerful voice, he called out for help until several adults came running. Someone whipped out their phone and the boys parents were called. Arriving quickly, they carried him off to the hospital for a suspected broken arm. Micah waved until he couldn’t see their car anymore.
Last year, the morning after my grandmother passed away, I was rushing to get the boys ready for school. It is always a bit crazy in our house in the mornings. After they had eaten, lunches were packed, ball caps were found and sunscreen was applied, I sat down on the couch to get my bearings. There was a school picnic that day and I didn’t really feel like going. A little hand slipped into mine as Micah laid his head on my arm and said, “it’s okay if we need to be sad today. Great Grandma was special to us and now she’s gone.” Wise words from a little eight year old boy. He sat there with me for a few minutes and calmed my soul. When it was time to leave, the boys pulled on their shoes and back packs and Micah said, “but she’d still want us to be happy enough to go to the picnic, right?” We went to the picnic.
Aiden is smart, helpful and a hard worker. Micah is compassionate, kind and creative. Two very different boys from the same family. Two very different boys with the same diagnosis.
In our house, signs of autism are everywhere. In the kitchen, we have a this/then chart and rewards system. In the bedrooms we have routine task reminders. The living room sports television shows that are more appropriate for preschoolers. The playroom is filled with toys other 9 and 11 year old boys wouldn’t be caught playing with. The cupboards full of medication they need to take to survive the world outside these walls.
As I walk through our home, I am content. Yes, being an autism parent is often difficult. I am aware of the long, hard hours it takes. I know the heartbreak and stress intimately. But I also know the joy. It is in Aiden’s hard work and helpful attitude. It is in Micah’s creativity and compassion. Autism is real and live in our lives. And I wouldn’t have it any other way.