My first child lulled me into a false sense of security. Olivia was simple. She followed the classic checklist at the classic pace and, in some cases, reached milestones earlier. We showed her off to those around us and boasted of her achievements as if they were our own. This little girl was amazing and, because she was mine, I must be amazing too.
So, three years later, when Lucas was born, I was all buckled up for round two. Another kid, another day, another round of applause at every turn. He filled my heart with the same joy she did and his little face gave me the same burst of happiness whenever I saw it.
Before long, it became apparent that the milestones weren’t happening as quickly as expected. At first, it was hard to tell because, as the only baby in the house, there was no one else to compare him to. It wasn’t like we had a parade of infants rolling into our living room to display their current capabilities. We knew that he wasn’t advancing at the pace as his sister had been, but it was nothing to worry about.
So we waited…and waited…
Before long, those missed milestones went from things we barely noticed to things we quietly ignored to elephants stampeding all over the room. No one mentioned them and, in the rare case that someone did, it was quickly brushed away.
Is he crawling? No? Oh…well, that’s OK. Some babies crawl late.
He doesn’t roll over? Oh…well, keep it up. He’ll roll over soon.
He doesn’t speak? Oh…well, my uncle didn’t speak until he was 12 and now he’s the President.
Or some such nonsense.
The words fell from the mouths of family and friends in an effort to ease my troubled heart but they didn’t have that effect. They became lip service and a way to skate around a glaring issue that, deep down, we all recognized would play a part in his life.
With all this going on, one thing was certain in my head. If his delays ended up being something more, we both were screwed. After all, he wasn’t born to a scientist with a PHD in Autism. He was born to a dad who wrote for pro wrestling magazines and played Xbox. I didn’t have the answers to his scientific dilemmas. With all apologies to Mr. Dixon, I only passed the 11th grade science by copying off of Anastasia Palmonka’s final. This kid couldn’t have gotten stuck with a worse dad for his predicament.
No one asked me to take a written survey before his birth. They don’t check with you on the way out of the hospital to make sure you know, well, anything. They simply hand you a baby and send you on your way. When my daughter was born, I was blown away that they trusted me to remember how to feed her when I left the building. They strapped her into our carseat, gave a double tap to the back of the S.U.V., and sent us on our way. Good luck! Keep it alive!
Now, I was onto kid number two and the trust put in me stretched far beyond feeding time. I was about to become the father of a non-verbal son with autism. I knew nothing about autism and nothing about being non-verbal. Hell, I knew nothing about having a son. I was new to literally every aspect of this and now, the most vulnerable person in the world was laying in my living room and counting on me to guide him through life.
I was convinced I was going to blow it. That’s the big secret. At the time your baby first starts to display the early signs of autism, people assume you worry about bonding with him, how he’ll grow, and whether he’ll ever fit comfortably into society. Honestly, that’s true. I worried about all those things. But that wasn’t the biggest one.
The biggest worry was that I felt like there was no possible way I could raise this kid in a manner that would do him justice. I would never be able to understand what was needed and execute it all in a way that would help him through life. You might as well have asked me to build a car that could fly to the moon.
Well, slap my face and call me Elon because here I am, nine years in and I’ve been doing it. I’m not perfect. I’m not the king of the Special Education PTA parents, but I’m doing my best and he’s flourishing in all the ways I aim for him to flourish. I’ve been patient, focused, and ready to learn as I go. His needs have become my needs and, every day, I see progress.
I honestly don’t know if this is a “love conquers all” story. It would be easy to tell you that just because I loved him, failure wasn’t an option. But I’m not entirely certain that’s the answer and I’m not sure if a tightly wrapped conclusion like that belittles the entire process. Love may have been the catalyst to get me going but it took heart, determination, and humbleness to accept that there were things I needed to put before my own needs in order to make sure he reached his.
Today, I’m proud of Lucas the same way I am proud of Olivia. The two of them have exceeded the expectations I set forth for them both. Along with them, however, I’m proud of myself for all I’ve done too. The big difference? I never doubted them the way I doubted myself.
So, when I worry about what comes tomorrow, I think about where we were yesterday. Where we are today is so much farther than I ever dreamed. Whatever heights he reaches next is more than possible. The big difference now? There isn’t a doubt in my mind that I can help him get there.