No Autism Pep Talks Needed

My son is six years old and he might never speak. I’ve come to grips with that.

I’ve also come to grips with the fact that he could start speaking at any time. I guess you can say that I’ve come to grips with the fact that anything is possible and the future is always up in the air.

As of today, Lucas is on the Autism spectrum and non-verbal. It’s just a small part of who he is and, while I’m confident that he will make great strides throughout his life, I’m also confident that I will be happy no matter what happens.

It’s a reality that most special needs parents face at some point. If my son suddenly stopped developing at this very moment, would I still love him? Of course I would. It’s not even a question. While I would love to meet his billionaire business partners one day, I would also love to put my arm around him and watch The Wiggles when he’s the same age, if that’s what’s in the cards. Wherever he goes and whatever he does, as long as I’m breathing, I’ll be there by his side.

The same thing holds true for my daughter, who is not on the spectrum at all. I know she can achieve whatever she sets out to do, but if she falls short of the stars she’s shooting for, I’ll love her just the same. That’s not a big shocking concept. It’s basic parenting.

pep1Before children are born, the go-to statement for expectant moms and dads is, “As long as the baby’s healthy, we’ll be happy.” Once a child is in your arms, though, you learn how flawed that sentiment is. Healthy, not healthy, tall, short, purple, or whatever – you’ll be happy with them no matter what. That’s your baby. Will there be heartache in life? Sure. There’s heartache in every life. That doesn’t change the value they hold. We don’t put requirements on our children in order to earn our love.

That’s why I get a knot in my stomach when people try to offer unsolicited encouragement upon learning of my son’s Autism. Well-meaning words can feel like daggers when presented in the wrong context. Words like:

Oh, he’ll talk. Don’t you worry a bit. I’m sure he’ll turn out just fine.

Forget, for a moment, that no one asked if they thought he’d talk or be “fine”. Forget the fact that the people usually offering these two cents barely know him. Instead, focus on what those words are actually saying. The statement itself implies that he’s not “fine” now and that anything short of talking one day will be a disappointment. It’s like meeting a buddy’s kid and saying, “Don’t worry, Phil. I’m sure he’ll grow out of that face.”

Learning a friend’s child has Autism is not an opportunity to debate vaccines or breast feeding. It’s also not a time for a Friday Night Lights inspirational speech based on nothing but good vibes. It might make the person saying it feel better, but to a parent who deals with their child’s special needs every day, it’s patronizing and wasted.

We don’t know what tomorrow will bring, so why even say it? It’s like guessing at what a non-verbal child is secretly capable of, which people also tend to do.

Oh. Look at his face. He knows everything. I can tell. He knows so much more than he lets on.

Again, this statement isn’t born from malice. It’s an attempt by a friend to ease our minds. It’s basically their way of saying that despite all outward appearances, our son is really aware of all that it seems he isn’t. It implies that he will eventually “snap out of it” or “come around”.

While there are tons of obvious problems with that point of view, there’s one fact that well-wishers miss. It’s the fact that we, as his family, spend the most time with him. If anything, they should be asking us what he’s aware of.

It also doesn’t take into account the private (and sometimes trying) times we spend together. You know, those times when we’re not all glittered up and out visiting friends. They say he understands everything? Does that mean that earlier when he jumped in the air and accidentally headbutted me in the nose, only to hop away clapping while I yelped in pain, was on purpose? I would hate to think that was the case. That would be awful. Suddenly those comforting words aren’t so comforting.

So, if it seems like there aren’t many things to say to make the parent of a child on the Autism spectrum feel better, that’s because there aren’t. And there’s a big reason for that.

There’s nothing to make us feel better about.

In fact, there isn’t much to say at all. Ask questions. Get to know him. Try to understand. But words of “encouragement” that suggest it would be a bad thing to have him grow up as he is now isn’t something anyone wants to hear.

Sure, some moms and dads with newly diagnosed children might turn to friends for support. Unless they do, though, there’s no reason to ease their minds. No one has to sell us on our own child. We’re on board already. We love him. He’s awesome.

To be frank, we all love our own kids the most and I’m no different. Other people’s children might be great, but I like my kids a lot more. There’s nothing more ironic than having someone offer me a sympathetic tone about my son while their own son, who’s not on the spectrum, is setting off firecrackers in the toilet. Yeah, my kid isn’t talking now, but he’s being sweet. Their kid is talking now, but he’s kind of a jerk.

Don’t worry a bit, though. I’m sure he’ll turn out just fine.