“What does that say Owen?”
“It say “happy” like me. Like Owen.”
“Wow! That’s great reading, baby!”
I bit back tears of joy and hugged him, “That makes mama so happy to hear that you’re happy.”
“Yes, baby, sometimes people cry when they’re happy.”
He looked confused and laughed at me, “Mama, silly.”
The conversation spiralled from there when I asked him to wear clothes but despite that I teared up. It was the first time he had said he was “happy” before. It was the first time he had verbally identified his emotions to me.
How many times have we been told that he wouldn’t be the child we have today? How many moments did I despair of not hearing his voice only to wish at moments now that the echolalia would let up for the day? How many of the past predictions am I grateful are wrong and how many of them might still someday be true? There’s so many conflicting emotions in an average day that I find myself spinning and waiting at the center of it all feeling my ears rings from the din.
He’s a happy kid yet a mercurial one. His emotions are always lurking just under the surface like an alligator waiting to lunge or a dolphin surging with joy.
The further we go along the less I understand or feel confident in the research about my kids and the more sure I am of knowing them. I know that they will change the moment I feel I have a grip on the phase they’re in currently. I know that experts are all too often wrong and biased by their own experience. The child they perceive is not the one I know. I know that my kids ache. That it’s possible to be happy in the moment yet carry a deep sadness that is waiting just at the edges like an interloper photo bombing the imaginary picture of your expectations. I see it in their eyes when other kids move away from them and disclude them. I see it when they watch others play and talk themselves out of joining because it’s too loud, too crowded, or too overwhelming.
I ache for them when I see their silent struggle and I rankle when I hear other adults minimize this and their feelings.
“They just need to get out there and play…”
“My kid struggles with that too…”
“Maybe if you…”
“Wow, your kid is REALLY sensitive…”
“Yeah, kids sure can be mean…”
“Well, you know, everybody seems to have autism nowadays…”
“Kids will be kids…”
“Isn’t that just how boys are though?”
“Temper tantrums, huh? Yeah, mine have them too…”
“It must be hard to be like that…”
Yes, it is hard to be like “this”, ignorant stranger. If by “this” you mean that it’s hard to suffer people sharing their unsolicited opinions about my parenting as I try to help my kid through a full-blow sensory meltdown as they hover and ask questions causing my kid the further pain of shaming them in public by drawing attention to their discomfort. Pecking at me with comments and questions like a mosquito feasting at me with abandon. Judging me and my child simultaneously all while trying to be understanding of my plight which implies that you are superior since you have so many nuggets of wisdom to share with me while my child pummels me and screams.
Then there’s my daughter whose meltdowns are typically silent. The agony is in her eyes and stooped posture as other children stare and whisper, push past her, refuse to speak to her, skip over choosing her for games, or demand to know “what’s wrong” with her as she further shuts down. She forces herself to smile, make eye contact even when it hurts, pulls at her hands and lips to stop herself from stimming, and panics over every word and how she enunciates it only to make herself stutter and stammer more pronounced. I see it before I hear her as I go to pick her up from a three hour day camp. I watch her in the backseat as she stares out the window singing along to a musical that she’s memorized by heart.
She’s trying to pass as happy. She desperately wants to be liked and accepted. Yes, just like your child but, no, she is not like yours. Yours is neurotypical, mine is many labels but ultimately judged as atypical by others. To me, they both are as exotic as an undiscovered species stumbled upon in an unknown world and I’m fumbling through their language.
I love them exactly as they are and hope for a day that people stop pressuring them to pass as anything but themselves. Wouldn’t we all love for that? I know that’s where most of the advice and questions come from so I smile, answer candidly, and keep grasping myself at trying to pass as happy even when I am not.
When you’re a parent of a child with autism there’s the additional expectation of being their champion from others. There are moments where I don’t feel strong enough for that mantle. I just want someone to tell me it’s ok to be a mess that day. I just want someone to see me and tell me I’m not alone in feeling that it’s fucked up but that’s probably too much to expect. We’re all trying to pass as happy in our own way.