Gorgeous boy, you don’t yet understand stereotypes.
But people are already judging you by them, stereotypes like these –
People with autism have limited imaginations. Autistic children do not play and pretend like others their age. They are trapped in a literal world where the nuances of fantasy and imagery escape them.
People with autism do not feel as others do; they have no empathy. Affection and love are alien and unwanted. The parents of autistic children must feel the absence of that affection so keenly; they must long for hugs and kisses, to feel that unconditional love, as other parents do.
Before they even know your name, before they know that you enjoy absurd humour and word games, before they know your age or what you love, people will judge you by those stereotypes.
The dangerous thing about labels is that they sometimes have a grain of truth, a nugget of reality that is twisted or meaningless out of context – but it is a truth people like to cling on to. It is familiar. It is easy. That is why stereotypes become so widespread.
It’s true, you imagine differently. When playing with Play-Doh at a Preschool group you become so agitated. Play-Doh isn’t food. You can’t make ice creams and cakes and houses out of it. It is Play-Doh. The other children play easily. They make trees and butterflies and people.
You will not. Because it is Play-Doh. You like to turn cars over and watch their wheels spin. You don’t like to pretend they are driving on a road.
But, at home, on your terms, your imagination runs wild.
“Mummy, what if, instead of being on the floor, the sofa was on the ceiling?”
When I tell you that you cannot watch more television until after lunch, and that I have hidden the remote, your imagination is right there:
“I will turn you into a remote-control mummy, and I will press your buttons and turn the TV back on!”
In the kitchen, which is long and thin, we are on the back of a dinosaur.
Walking home from the shops, you imagine the trees have all turned pink, just like in nonsense land.
You are the most imaginative person I know.
The nuances of body language and non-verbal communication have never come easily to you. Even now, you do not point at things properly, using your whole hand to gesture generally. You do not know how to kiss. You try, pursing your lips in strange ways; copying does not come easily.
Body language is meant to be universal but, for you, it is like trying to learn a new language – something obscure and forgotton – like Latin.
People’s faces do not make sense. When you express your love and affection it is sometimes idiosyncratic, like mistakes in grammar and syntax when speaking a new language.
Holding hands in a busy place, your little finger circles my palm because you are anxious. When you run to greet me after nursery, you do not throw your arms around me, like the other boys and girls might. You turn around and place your back towards me, pressing as hard as you can. If I am sitting, you do the same, reversing in between my legs and pressing yourself backwards.
After a long day at your assessment appointments, your baby sister screaming and screaming without respite, with people telling me about all the things you find hard, all the things you can’t do, I break.
A sob escapes as I park the car and I can hold it in no longer.
You have learned my biggest emotions first, because they are most important to you – and so you know what that sob means.
“Mummy! Mummy! You can’t be sad. Please mummy you can’t be sad. Everything is ok. You will be ok. Your bubba is here! Your bubba’s got you!”
I hear my own words of comfort, repeated back to me, as your little face crumples with fear and despair, and I know you know what it means for another to feel heartbroken. Sometimes, emotions are just hard to translate.
You feel love and pain and you love me as fiercely as I love you.
I am finishing drying off your baby sister, after her bath. I can hear you and daddy, making your way up the stairs, ready for yours.
“Are you going to show Mummy what you learned?”
“Yes Daddy. Let’s get up the stairs and show Mummy!”
“Oh I think she is going to like it very much.”
I wonder what you have learned. A new word. To take off your own T-shirt. A new song. I wait patiently. As you reach the top of the stairs, I turn.
You throw your arms around my neck.
You press your whole body into me, just like you always do, but this time your arm squeeze so tightly. You hold it for several seconds and then you release me and say:
“Mummy, daddy showed me how to do a proper hug!”
It is the first time YOU have ever hugged ME. It is the best hug of my life.
It felt like a moment of pure comfort, pure tranquillity – because hugging is my natural language, not yours.
I will remember it along with the other most magical moments of my life – saying ‘I do’, looking into your eyes, into your sister’s eyes for the first time.
Even though you are in a world where everyone speaks Latin, you learn to translate it, a little more, every day. It is slow and painful. The language is difficult and everybody expects you to just know it – because everybody else does. But you keep learning. You keep trying.
Your spirit, your affection, your imagination – they could not be clearer to me.
And you give the best hugs.