My kids are the best kids in my house. By far, out of all the ten and seven-year olds that live under this roof, these two are the cream of the crop. They excel in everything around here. From singing to dancing to necromancing, these kids top our household charts. I beam with pride over everything they do. It’s all pretty awesome.
Of course, there’s a big world outside of my home and a larger, less related, sea of judges to please. They see my children from a different point of view. To them, smudges on the cheeks of my adorable kids aren’t necessarily adorable. They’re just smudges. Ew.
My yearly reminder of this comes during Parent Teacher Conferences. My daughter, I’m proud to say, always gets glowing reviews. She really tries her best at whatever she does. Any issues that spring up are addressed and handled. As her Kindergarten teacher once put it, “Olivia? She’s an easy one.” Yeah. My wife gets to do those conferences.
I do Lucas’s conferences. My seven-year-old is non-verbal and attends a specialized program in a different public school than his sister. The people at the front desk seem to know who he is and, in many ways, he’s like Norm from Cheers. I imagine his bus pulling up in the morning and the entire faculty exclaiming, “Lucasss!” He’s a regular George Wendt, this kid.
I take my seat at this undersized table while his teacher and speech specialist start by telling me what I already know.
Lucas is a great kid. We all love him so much.
Yeah. That works. I agree with that assessment. He’s phenomenal. I, too, love him so much. We are off on great footing so far. This meeting shouldn’t take long.
Then, things take a turn. I start to hear about milestones they’re attempting to reach and issues that I hadn’t even been thinking about. They’ll drop the cuteness talk and start pointing to different goals that I hadn’t even considered.
We’re working on stacking Legos. He’s having a few issues, but I think he can do it. We think we might just skip over math and focus more on his basic core language. He wouldn’t really be able to grasp the concept just yet…
At no time in my parenting, do I feel like a better parent than I do in that moment. Why? Because upon hearing that, I’m not flipping the desk over and demanding to know why anyone would besmirch my son’s good name. I don’t cover my face or put cotton balls in my ears. I don’t loudly sing out, “Nah, nah. I can’t hear you!” I don’t insist that he can do math and Lego stacking at a 12th grade level. I do none of those things.
I take a breath and a pen, then begin writing down the techniques they suggest. I step out of my parenting role and into, what I can only assume is what they call, my advocate role. I suck up my emotion and store it for another day because that’s what is good for Lucas.
I smile throughout the rest of the meeting and genuinely focus on what needs to be done. For me, that’s the most important part I have to play. I can get angry or sad or hungry or glad or whatever on my own time. When it comes to meetings like this, it’s about helping my child. I’m here for him.
It’s when I get to the car that things can get a bit rough. I close the door and feel my body fall against the driver’s seat. After sitting in a chair made for a seven-year-old for an hour, it’s a welcome reward. Inevitably, the reality of that meeting gets to me.
On that car ride home, I can’t stop thinking about all that needs to be done. My brain will replace an image of Lucas with another kid – the kid who doesn’t stack Legos or get arithmetic. I question everything and immediately tons of those scary future scenarios start to poke at me again. I feel awful for every minute of video games I’ve played and every TV show that I half-watched while he struggles to reach his successes.
Once you see one crack, you start seeing them all. Suddenly, I’m driving home and racking my brain for things my son still has yet to learn. As the list gets longer and longer in my mind, I start to worry more than I have in a long time. What can I do? What haven’t I done? I mentally beat myself silly until I park in the driveway and open the front door.
Then I see him. Whether he looks up from the couch with a high-handed wave or comes over for a hug, only to lean all the way back, forcing me to keep him from falling as he laughs, it makes no difference. He’s in front of me and that image of who he truly is returns. All that worry, while still there to be focused on, washes away with one look. Sure, he needs to learn a whole lot, but he’s OK. He will always be OK. I’ve got him.
There may be plenty of things that Lucas can do, but I also acknowledge that there are many things that he cannot. As his father, I need to recognize those things – whether my child does or doesn’t have Autism. I shouldn’t, however, dwell on them. He’s made up of so much more than the boxes his teachers can’t put checks in yet. I’d love for him to be able to say “hello”, but I love him just as much if he never does.
You love people for what they do, not what they don’t. Those things are invisible until you’re forced to face them. When that happens, real parents stand tall and do just that. It’s one of the hardest things I have to do, but I do it at least once a year. I let them talk about everything he isn’t. Then, I come home, and I’m reminded that I love him for all the things he is.