This is a post by Kimberlee Rutan McCafferty, mother to two sons on the autism spectrum and an Autism Family Partner at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia (CHOP). Kim is also the author of a blog about her two children with autism, at autismmommytherapist.wordpress.com. Kim's book Raising Autism: Surviving the Early Years is on sale on Amazon here.
“When I was a little boy did I have autism?” my smallest son asks as he pauses momentarily in his teeth brushing duties.
I feel my heart skip a beat as I realize this is “the moment,” followed by the thought chaser that his father isn’t home, and I’ll be handling this myself.
It’s time for the “autism talk.”
I wrap his Thomas the Train towel more securely around his tall but lithe figure, and settle him down on my lap. I tell him when he was eighteen months old he got sick, had a high fever for days, was miserable. I tell him that after that illness he seemed to lose his words, was relegated to a vocabulary of “mama” and “juice” that bore no resemblance to his formerly loquacious self. I tell him that a doctor told us he had a “little autism,” not a lot like his brother, but a little all the same.
He asks me if he’ll always have it, and I tell him that most people have it all of their lives. He pauses and processes, and after this momentary break I remind him his brother has it too. I tell him that autism is what enabled Justin able to read at the tender age of three. I tell him it’s what makes him so smart, and so creative. I tell him that autism gave him the gift of a phenomenal memory, is what enables him to retain all the dinosaur facts he loves so well.
I proceed to regale him again with stories of famous people presumed to have autism, ranging from contemporary figures to geniuses of the past like Albert Einstein, Mozart, and Thomas Jefferson. I tell him that autism is what helps make him so unique and special, that his family loves him, that so many people love him. I tell him for the thousandth time how in awe I am of him, how my heart fills with pride that he tries so hard every day to conquer his fears and challenges. He hugs me and responds with exuberance that he will write a letter to George Lucas the next day and ask for a list of all the Star Wars characters who have autism.
Perhaps someone can help me out with finding his address.
After his George Lucas declaration he bounds from the bathroom to his bedroom to select his favorite pajamas, and I remain seated momentarily, allow myself to catch my breath after this momentous moment. I think back over all the years I’ve been building to this moment, the times my husband and I have touted Justin’s innate intelligence, his affectionate nature, all the wonderful traits that this child with severe autism possesses in spades. My mind wanders to all the discussions we’ve had about contributions made by autistic people, how smart they often are, how innovative.
Soon his father comes home, and I quickly sneak in that we’ve had “the talk” before he enters Zach’s bedroom, and before my husband has the chance to take it all in, my son yells “Daddy, I have a little autism!” and throws himself on his father, wrapping torso and limbs tightly around my spouse’s still-moving legs. Jeff looks at me and mouths “That went well,” and I smile in response, and try to corral an excited six-year-old to bed. Soon kisses are dispensed, and I prepare myself that he may not capitulate to the onslaught of sleep, that all of this information may compel him to leave his bed on several occasions.
Several? Let’s make that six.
I head downstairs for that glass of wine I’ve rightly deserved, at peace with my declaration, enthralled with how it went down. My smallest son has autism. He knows it now, and our talk could not have gone better. His reaction was elation, coupled with pride, chased with joy at the gifts his particular brand of autism will bring to him.
And as I banish forever all the years of fear that have led up to this moment, I couldn’t be more proud myself.