Before I had a non-verbal son with Autism, I only knew what I saw from afar. An ad in April urging Autism Awareness or a TV character who others struggled “to accept” were my only real exposure to the ways that people with special needs fit into society. They were part of someone else’s story and documentaries had to be made to explain how their families were able to “overcome the pain”. It all seemed so far away and rather depressing.
So naturally, when Lucas was diagnosed and I heard that his delays might be more than delays, my heart dropped. I saw a lifetime of work ahead of me. I had to learn how to care for and how to love this boy, who I was told would be difficult to bond with. Everything I had ever known from everyone who ever told me said that this wasn’t going to be easy.
It turns out that only a portion of that was right. Yes, caring for my son requires work. There are many things he doesn’t understand and many rules he simply can’t follow. You can’t just sit him down, even as a nine year old, and say, “Don’t put your hand on that hot stove.” The second you turn away, he’s going to do it. Even if he were to char his fingers to a crisp, he might do it again ten minutes later with bandages and all.
I’m not sure if the temptation is too great or the consequences don’t fully register, but either way, it’s a difficult task to keep him focused on things like that. It turns my stomach and causes more worry than most people can ever understand.
So, that part was right. What wasn’t right was that the work isn’t all on my shoulders. It’s on his too and he carries it with strength. I’ve watched my son overcome the odds to communicate and learn in ways I never imagined possible. I’ve been blown away by word recognition, receptive language, and things he comprehends, but keeps hidden from public view. The first time he breezed through a color match activity or a game of Memory face tiles, I nearly fell over. I’m so proud of all he has done and I grow prouder every day.
The other thing that I had wrong was about the love. Loving my child hasn’t been a struggle at all. In fact, loving my child is what has kept me going throughout all the rest. It’s the reason I push to teach him and the reason I will drop anything to watch him learn. In many ways, raising him would be much easier if I didn’t love him. It would eliminate some of the gut-wrenching worries I have over things like his future, safety, and the way others might treat him outside my presence.
Having that love has showed me something that, prior to Lucas, I never realized. It’s that other families with special needs children have the same thing. While there was once a time where I would watch a parent struggle with a learning disabled child in a supermarket and silently sigh to myself over how sad their lives must be. I don’t anymore. I know the truth. I know our truth. I live it and it’s not sad. It’s second-nature, like breathing. They love this person. They do it because that’s what family does and our hearts don’t allow us the luxury of picking and choosing who we help. We help the people we love.
It makes me want to treat all special needs children with the same respect and honor that I would want others to treat my son. I say hello when introduced because, when I introduce someone to Lucas and they don’t say hello, I get angry. I want to grab them by the collar and say, “Hey! Say hello to my favorite boy in the world!” Whether or not he’s going to say “hi” back is immaterial. To paraphrase Mr. Darnell in Lean on Me, you will show him the respect you would damn well want yourself.
I’d like to be able to tell you I knew that lesson before my son was born, but I didn’t. I’m not proud of it, but to pretend otherwise would be to deprive him of the credit he deserves for showing me and myself from the steps I took to become better. People like to tell you that when you have kids, you love them on a level you’ve never known before. There is nothing truer than that statement and I’m reminded of that every day.
I love both my children unlike anything before or anything I will after. Whether it’s my wonderful daughter who can tell me about her day or my amazing son who doesn’t, they both mean the world to me. I would drop anything for either and, when I do, no one has to let out a deep sigh to themselves at the grocery store. We may struggle to help our children, but we never struggle to love them…no matter the circumstances.