By Leo, of Autism Blues
A Fortunate Slip of the Lip
I could have sworn he was downstairs. Really. I wouldn’t have said what I did if I knew he was in his bedroom—well within earshot. As Katie and I were going up the stairs this afternoon, I was recounting how this kid (#4, nine years old) had taken such good care of his younger brother (#6, six years old) at the neighborhood pool. If I had known he was in his bedroom, at the top of the stairs, changing out of his bathing suit, I would not have said, out loud:
“And [this kid], our autistic son, did really well today. So much for the old myth about empathy!”
“Dad? What does ‘autistic’ mean?”
My heart sank. It was probably the first time he ever heard himself described as autistic.
It’s not that I was hiding it from him. I had been wanting to tell him for some time now. I just didn’t know how to do it. And I didn’t want to manufacture some Hallmark moment where there would be this big reveal and a whole new understanding. I wanted it to be natural and, well, right. (Plus, I was also a little chicken.)
No Good Opportunity.
You see, he’s one of six, and they’re all autistic. His two older brothers and older sister already know about their diagnoses—and they found out more or less by accident as well. At least, it didn’t happen on my terms and in a way that I wanted it to. (Insert chicken squawks here.)
So autism is pretty much the lay of the land in our family, and that means he doesn’t really stick out at home enough to wonder why he’s different. All the kids present a pretty consistent profile of being on the higher-functioning end of the autism spectrum, so he’s got a built-in tribe of autistics to relate to.
He also manages to blend in pretty well with his peers at school—at least so far. He’s only in fourth grade, too which means that his classmates are too busy running around on the play ground to pay much attention to his quirks or language glitches. Plus, he works hard to try to fit in. It’s not perfect, and it can lead him to come home tired, moody, and explosive. But it works.
So there didn’t seem to be any need to explain autism to him. (Squawk!!)
Stumbling into The Talk.
Anyway, there I was, completely unprepared for the talk. But there was no getting around it; I had to answer his question.
I brought him into our room along with Katie, and asked him, “What did you hear me say?”
“You said I was autistic and I have empathy.”
“That’s right. Do you know what empathy means?” (I was stalling for time.)
“It means that you care about how other people feel. It means that you can feel their feelings, and you want to help people who feel bad. That’s a really good thing, and I’m so glad you are like that.”
“Okay. What about autistic?”
I hesitated, not sure exactly what to say. Then Katie stepped in and saved me. “It means you think outside of the box.”
O merciful intervention! I knew that this kid thinks too literally to grasp metaphors like that. But that was a good thing; it gave me something concrete to react to. I didn’t have to come up with a complete explanation out of nowhere. The talk was happening all by itself.
Autism Is. . .
So I told him that “outside of the box” means that God made his brain a little different than most other kids’ brains. I talked about the cool gifts this brain gives him, like his laser focus on math and cooking and singing. He’s got some real talents there. Then I talked about challenges like how he can have a hard time putting words together or how he sometimes struggles understanding when someone’s talking to him. I hit on a couple of others, like emotional regulation and his need to jump around and get giddy sometimes. Then came the Big Finish.
“So there’s something a little different about you. That doesn’t make you weird. Just different. Autism isn’t a disease or a sickness. It just makes you special. Got it?”
“No. Can I go type on the computer now?”
“Sure thing. Knock yourself out.”
And that was that. No fuss. No drama. No nothing. None of the baggage that the world gives to the word autism. None of the baggage that I can give it, either. Just another word to help him describe himself.
In a way, I’m glad that it happened like this. I didn’t have time to worry about developing the perfect speech. I didn’t have the luxury of turning it into a thing, which might risk emphasizing the difference more than I wanted. I didn’t have enough of a chance to screw it up, either.
I also liked the way it became just another thing that happened today. Mind you, I’m not sure how much of it he really grasped. But I didn’t want to push. It doesn’t really matter anyway. We began a conversation today that will unfold and deepen over time.
No Big Deal.
So there you have it. My son found out that he is autistic, and he’s doing just fine. An inopportune-but-opportune moment presented itself, and we did our best with it.
It may not sound like the best approach, but there’s something really appealing and “normal” about things like this happening within the natural flow of everyday life. It helps the kids see that it’s not a big deal. It’s one facet of who they are, and it has no bearing on how much we love them or how much dignity or value they have—in our eyes or in God’s eyes.
That’s four down, two to go. I think I’m getting the hang of this thing. So bring it on!
Leo is one of my favorite autism dads. You can find more stories about his family on his blog "Autism Blues" . He also runs a Autism Blues Facebook community
Leo and his wife Katie live in Maryland with their six children, ages 6 to 15, all of whom are on the autism spectrum. Yes you read that right! Six children on the spectrum. I am truly inspired by their humor and grace as they parent their six children.