The biggest surprise that came along after my son was diagnosed with autism wasn’t anything about him. To be completely honest, the biggest surprise came from other people.
Maybe it’s the New York state of mind that I had constantly been in, but I expected people to be ruder. I was prepared for stares, glares, and whispered judgments from afar. I was ready to a lot of things and none of them were nice.
Before you think that I was putting it all on Lucas, I’m not. Preparing for battles that never happened was more of a theme in my life than I cared to admit. I had a low opinion of myself and an even lower opinion on the world around me. I expected nothing less than the worst the world had to offer.
My children are the two greatest things that have ever happened to me and, knowing that to be true, I feared that others would see them as my greatest weakness. Want to hurt me? Mock my kids. Say something bad. Do something mean. Try to bring me down through the two things that lift me up the most.
Of course, then I would have to react and, all of these hypothetical scenarios created insane stories in my brain. I pictured street brawls out of a Steven Seagal movie and ninjas hopping out from behind the bar at TGIFridays. My imagination was my biggest enemy. It was on a steady loop of negativity, even when none existed at the time.
Actually, none really existed at all. In all the years that I’ve been a dad, few people have even said one cross word about my children. That’s not to say that my kids are perfect…well, actually, yeah, they are. But no one has tried to pretend they aren’t in an attempt to bring me down. That’s the point I am trying to make.
With my son, being non-verbal can appear to be a vulnerability. I grew up in the 1980s and rank outs, insults, and yo mama jokes were a national pastime. I couldn’t believe that he wouldn’t face the same ridicule that other children in my age group did. So, admittedly, I was on high alert from the start.
There’s one small problem with being on high alert, though. Sometimes you subconsciously will the negativity to happen. You get so wrapped up in defending honor that you jump on anyone who comes close to approaching that line. You find yourself pushing back against people who aren’t pushing at all.
That’s something I worked hard to remember early on. For many people, autism isn’t as prevalent as it is to our family. They don’t celebrate holidays with a boy like my son or see him on a day to day basis. To them, being non-verbal is a mystery and there are things that I don’t know that they don’t know because, in my mind, everyone knows.
But they don’t.
So, they ask. The questions can sometimes appear to be pointed at first glance. When your finger’s on the offended trigger, hearing them can send you into a firing frenzy. That’s when it’s important to remember that ignorance isn’t offensive. It’s acting upon that ignorance without trying to learn that is.
Because of that, I’m very open about Lucas. I don’t hide him from people or shoot them down when they want to talk about autism with me. I speak with the same pride for him that I do for his sister and if someone has a question, no matter how bizarre it might seem to me, I try to answer. As long as it comes from a place of learning, rather than cruelty, I will answer anything.
To do anything less would be to construct walls around us. We’d be pushing people away who just want to come in. I’d be doing the one thing to my boy that I don’t want. I’d be closing him off from a world that wants to be a part of his. It goes against the whole concept of what I am trying to do as his dad.
I would rather someone asks me why he’s clapping or some other stimming activity than to just stare from across the room. I invite them to learn more about one of my favorite people and I jump at the chance to tell them. As you can probably tell, I love talking about my kids. So, when someone shows interest, I couldn’t be happier to help.
That said, there might be times that I’m not in the mood to give an educational seminar. We all have days like that. I’m not mandated to do an impromptu personal Ted talk on a day when I’m just “not feeling it”. On those days, though, I’m polite and still happy they want to know more.
And then I usually end up doing it anyway because, well, talking about him makes me happy.
Autism Awareness is real. It’s something people are eager to have and I’m more than willing to share. It leads to acceptance and then to appreciation. When someone approaches you from a place of curiosity, let them in. The more they know, the more we can all say we’re connected. It’s how I can make one of the greatest people in my world become a part of theirs.