I’m afraid I’m not going to make any friends with this post. This is kind of what you wind up with when you find writing cathartic and when you’re not the kind of person who sits and has heart-to-hearts with people. I mean, hey . . . I even have to be near a nervous breakdown before I’ll tell Bill I’m having a difficult time with something. So, yeah . . . tough day.
I’m having a rough morning, from a “mental health” standpoint (as my co-worker would say). The day started off pleasantly enough. I took a shower, chatted with my grandpa, joked around with Joshua, and sang a couple of songs with Owen. Then, someone ignored a simple request from Owen, and my morning spun into a circle of weepiness. Admittedly, largely uncalled for, mountain-out-of-a-molehill weepiness, but weepiness nonetheless. I'm well aware that I'm being unreasonable. Doesn't really change anything.
These days, there seems to be this stigma attached to autism families who sort of mourn their situation. “Don’t complain about the life you lead with autism, because it’s like saying there’s something wrong with your child or that autism is something to be ashamed of.” Hogwash. I have to deal with autism and all of the other issues that come along with it. I don't have to like it. So, I’m going to buck the trend and come right out and say it: I don’t really care for the way that people treat Owen. Or, maybe it would be more correct to say that I don’t really care for the way that people don’t treat Owen. Sometimes, I feel like people treat autism like a communicable disease. You won’t catch it. I promise. I rub my face on the kid everyday. Still not autistic. :) I try to remind myself that not everyone has the knowledge that Bill, Josh, and I have, so they don’t necessarily know how to act around a person with autism. That helps for a while, but then I get to thinking that autism is a lot like riding a bike, baking a soufflé, or knitting a sweater: you’re never going to know how to deal with it unless you put forth the effort.
There seems to be this pervasive belief that autism equals unaware and emotionless. False. So very, very false. It’s proven false in the joy that I see on Owen’s face when he finishes tracing his letters on his worksheets at night. It’s proven false in the proud giggles that I hear when he reads off 20 sight words without a single error. It’s proven false in the happy chatter he rattles off when one of the teens from our youth group plays a game with him. It’s proven false in the sigh I hear when I tell him, “No, sorry, we aren’t going to so-and-so’s house today.” It’s proven false by the disappointment in his eyes when he has to stay home while Josh gets picked up to go hang out with someone. People don’t think he knows any better. He does.
I know autism is hard . . . believe me. I know it requires massive amounts of patience, understanding, and a specific skill set. I also know that those things can be learned. All four-year-olds require patience, understanding, and a specific skill set. Shoot, all forty-year-olds require those things. In large part, though, we learned how to deal with autism the same way we learned to deal with nightmares, asthma attacks, and anxiety about not being liked by peers. How? By being present. Not “present” as in “in the general location.” “Present” as in “engaged, active, and interested.” Autism aside, Owen is just like any other little boy. He likes being ticked, wrestling, and being goofy. He enjoys playing with Lego, going out for ice cream, and running around the park. He gets excited when we sit down to play a game, lay out a blanket to have a living room picnic, or sing Bible songs. We’ve spent countless hours on fostering our relationship with him. That’s really all it takes, just as with any kid.
So, what can you do? Try. It’s really that easy. Don’t ignore him when you walk into the room. Say “hi” back for the 20th time. Pick him up, plop him on your lap, and read a book. Sing a silly song. Ask him about Team Umizoomi. Get down on the floor with him and play trains. Tell him you’d like to hear him say the alphabet. Anything. Just make an effort. Just make him feel important.