If anyone meets my son for even the briefest period, they can tell that he has special needs. Autism for Lucas means that, along with being non-verbal, he sometimes can appear to be oblivious to everything around him. While there are some wonderful moments where he can be fully present, there are many others when he is not.
Of course, I’m his dad so I’m above all that. I get to experience a side of him that most people don’t. I can read his face and know many of his feelings without having to hear a single word. We share laughter over moments that others might not understand and, although he has many areas he needs to improve in, I can see all his hidden abilities shine when he’s away from the eyes of others. To me, he’s present even in the moments when he doesn’t appear to be.
That almost causes an arrogance at times. I know Lucas the best in and out of my house – end of story. Sure, he has a mom and a sister here too, but, as I mentioned, there’s an arrogance to it. Father knows best. They made a whole TV show out of it.
This feeling stretches to his school and leads to many worried moments. Every Back To School Night usually runs the same. I sit there, in a tiny desk, and listen as the teacher goes over all the things that Lucas won’t be doing in the following year. Although he’s in a special needs classroom, my son typically lands behind many of his classmates in some key areas. So things like “holding conversations” and “identifying letters” don’t belong on his to-do list. We still have more than a few steps before we even get there.
Hearing these things at Back To School Night always worries me. Not only is it a spotlight on how far he still needs to advance in some areas, but as his advocate, I want to make sure he’s not left behind as the class moves forward. We send him to school to learn, not to be watched for a few hours. If he’s not going to be doing productive things, then I can just keep him home. I like having him around. We all do. These thoughts build in their fury as they swirl around my increasingly agitated mind for the duration of the classroom introduction.
So I tap my foot on the floor and click my pen against the desk in frustration until the presentation ends. That’s when I walk up to the teachers and begin having conversations about things like “making sure Lucas isn’t forgotten” and “not wanting him to be spinning his wheels.”
As always, those in charge assure me that he has plenty of things on his specialized agenda and that he is already making progress. Although I still worry, because I’m his dad and that’s what I do, I know deep-down that they are probably right. I know this because of the time I went up to his kindergarten class.
His speech teacher had scheduled an appointment during the school day to discuss my son’s goals and achievements. I was told to come up during his lesson, wait outside until they were done, and then come in to talk about all he was supposedly doing. I didn’t expect a ton of stuff. If anything, it gave me an excuse to see him during the day and get a giant enthusiastic hug.
When I arrived at the door, Lucas was already in the classroom with his speech teacher. I glanced inside the half window, making sure he didn’t see me. In the brief moment I looked, I saw them sharing a table covered in pictures of animals and farm locations. Before he could get a glimpse of my spying eyes, I made sure to duck out of sight. I could still hear them, though.
OK, Lucas. Here’s the cow. The cow lives here. This is the pig. The pig lives here. See? OK. Now. You show me. Where does the cow live?
I smirked at the question with all of my fatherly arrogance. While I wasn’t sure what they were doing exactly, I knew that questions like that were well beyond my son’s capabilities. I almost felt bad for the teacher as she was obviously trying to teach him things that he could never…
Good. That’s right. Good job, Lucas.
What? I listened as I heard an electronic toy she used as a reward began to play. I wasn’t sure what he had done, but he did it. The toy stopped and her voice continued.
Now this is the Turkey. This is the cat. This is the dog. The turkey lives here, the dog lives here, and the cat lives there. Now you show me. Where does the dog live? Very good!
What the heck? I looked back into the half window and my jaw practically bounced off the linoleum. He was doing it. Lucas was listening to instructions and placing the paper animals in the locations they belonged in. It was nothing I had ever seen him do before and unlike anything I would have ever guessed he would be capable of. It seriously blew my mind.
Here’s the thing, though. Two years later, it would still blow my mind to see him do this. We don’t typically sort animal pictures together at home. I’m sure that he has used that skill around us in other forms, but seeing it on display like that was something exclusive for school. It’s something that his speech teacher knew he could do, but I didn’t. I wouldn’t even think to try.
So today, when they assure me that he isn’t left behind or forgotten, I believe them. Sure, I still worry and will come sprinting up to the school like a papa grizzly on speed if I ever suspect otherwise. I do, however, accept that I don’t know everything he can or can’t do.
I can be arrogant about my knowledge of Lucas. That’s fine. But I also have to accept that just as he lets certain skills shine with me that others might not experiences, he does the same with teachers, family members, and others in his life. My son’s skill set stretches far beyond what any one person sees. It’s my job, as his advocate, to accept that. We all just need to trust in and rely on each other in order to bring out all the best he has to offer.