I thought I knew my son. At least I think I thought I knew my son. I think what I actually did was run away from knowing my son. Really getting to know my son, to find out how he sees or hears the world, to really understand his experience of living will make me accept that he is autistic. By running away from really knowing my son, by making token gestures of inquiring about his day, asking about his sleep, morning hugs and making sure I pick up his favorite blueberries, I make myself feel better about not really knowing my son. After all, I know he likes blueberries right ?
I just finished watching the movie about Temple Grandin. I have been avoiding this movie. It has simultaneously attracted and scared me since I heard about it. It has nothing to do with the main character whose books I’ve read and whose website I’ve looked at. She is a true inspiration and a fascinating woman. What it has to do with is seeing my son on the big screen. It has to do with everyone seeing my son on the big screen. It has to do with me not wanting to see my son on the big screen. That’s right. It’s all about me. Not my fantastic kid who is creative, loving, funny (well he tries to be anyway), empathetic and relatively athletic – nope. Not about any of that. It all comes down to me. My failure to protect him. My failure to have a “normal” son. My failure to live up to society’s expectation of what a “normal” boy should be. Me – who isn’t supposed to care what other people think. I am not brave enough to face the world and say, I accept my boy exactly as he is and screw you. I hide. I cringe. I sigh. I make a good show of accepting him and yet I fight who he is every day. And that’s ironic because every day I’m fighting for him as well.
I sat and watched this movie and tears just streamed down my face. I’m not sure when it started but probably at the scenes where the other kids make fun of Temple. I hate that. HATE THAT. That above all things is what bothers me the most. Why can’t you just be nice to my boy ? Why do you have to make fun of him and pick on him and bully him ? Why do I have to be grateful every time one of you deigns to play with him ? Why was I one of those kids who picked on and made fun of the different kid ? Not a lot. Not all the time. Probably no more than any other kid did when they didn’t know better but enough that I’m ashamed of myself now. Enough that I see the way my son is treated as a punishment for or a lesson to learn about what I probably put some kid through. See ? It’s all back to me again.
I cried with tears of joy when Temple had success. I cried with tears of pride when Temple made her inventions. I cried when she found the teacher at her boarding school who really got her and helped her and saw her for the unique and beautiful human being she was. This was the teacher who taught her that all you have to do is walk through the door to opportunity. And when the movie was over and Temple had found her way through that door, I bawled for a good ten minutes. Heaving, sobbing, snot running, hot tears of happiness and shame. Happy for Temple. Happy that she is a success story. Happy that she walked through the many doors that someone tried to close to her. And so ashamed that I have not done enough for my boy. So ashamed that I can’t accept the successes he has. So ashamed that I am such a small person after all.
Most people would have seen this movie, had their awe shucks wasn’t that great moment and moved on. It struck me deeply. It resonates with me still. I identify with the mother character completely. Pushing your child to try, pushing them to fit in, pushing them to use their talents, pushing for opportunities that might otherwise be denied them. I have done this for my boy. This I will own and was gratified that at the end of the movie Temple says this is exactly what parents should do. But a small part of me pushes him away while trying to do these things. It is for this that I sobbed. It is for this that the tears flowed. I might have missed chances with my son. I don’t know him as well as I think I do. I don’t know how he hears. I don’t know what the sensory overload does to him. I don’t know how the people picking on him really makes him feel. I don’t know why he tries to be funny even when he knows he’s usually not. I don’t know so many things about my son and I didn’t know that I didn’t know until I saw this movie. This movie opened up my eyes to how little I really know about my son and am afraid to ask. But am I really afraid to ask now ? Maybe now that I know the questions, the answer is no.
After the initial shock of realizing what I don’t know, I also realized that I think I’d like to know. I think it would help me understand him better. It would help me not get as frustrated with him. It would help me to make his world easier. Buying things for his claymation and cartooning interests is not the same as understanding why he likes it. Taking him swimming and going for bike rides is not the same as understanding why he can do these things but finds parties overwhelming. Buying him books and taking him to the library is not the same as knowing if he reads and sees in pictures at the same time like I do. Maybe it’s time to ask. Maybe it’s time to get to know my son. Maybe the awe shucks moment I’ll have will be when I sit and talk to my son and get to know him better. Then it will stop being about me and start being about us and we can walk through the door together.
One thing that struck me at the end of the movie was the line running under Temple Grandin’s name. It read, “Innovator, inventor, professor, autistic” and my immediate thought was that autism was right where it should be – last. Not because it is something to be ashamed of. Not because it is less of who she is but because it is not all she is. It is not the first thing that she is. It is a part of who she is that deserves to be recognized and accepted and admired. It is what helps to make her unique and in the society where normal is treasured above all this is valuable. Maybe this was my true watershed moment. Autistic is not all my son is and I need to remember that. Autism is not the first thing other people see when they meet my son either. Being autistic is part of who he is which helps to make him unique in this otherwise cookie cutter society.
I would like to introduce you to my son Thomas. He’s a really neat kid. And if you don’t see that, there’s the door. Don’t let it hit you on the butt as you leave. You’ve got 47 seconds before it slams shut.