In such a close-knit community like mine, fitting in is key.
There are many words to describe life with an autistic child: Exhausting, an adventure, a challenge. Sometimes it's awesome, and sometimes it's tiring. There are celebrations, tough times, and heartbreaking and very proud moments. It's best described as a roller coaster.
Autism is quite misunderstood and most people have a pre-conceived vision of what autism is. Before my son was diagnosed, I had that same vision. An autistic child was the kid sitting in the corner, lost in his own world, repeating the same activity for hours on end. Yes, that is autism, but it's just ONE part of it.
There's an autism spectrum — a very wide one. You have children like the ones described above and then you have kids like my son, who are very outgoing, very verbal, and behave mostly like a neurotypical child.
When my son was diagnosed with autism at age nine, my first reaction was was denial. My child was so outgoing, so social, and he actually had friends! That didn't fit with the stereotype. Only after I become educated on the subject did I realize how wide the spectrum is. No child with autism is the same; some present all the characteristics, some only a few.
If you spend enough time with my kid, you'll pick up on some weird vibes. He talks too loud. He will go on and on about a subject fascinating to him and won't realize when your eyes glaze over. He will tell you certain details, which you instinctively know shouldn't be said aloud. He will not always understand social clues and will seem very self-absorbed since it's hard for him to put himself in someone else's shoes.
But as much as it pains me, I have to hide my son's diagnosis.
Although the world has becomes more open-minded about special needs, we still have a long way to go — even more so in my ulta-Orthodox (Hasidic) Jewish community. The stigma about being different is still very much an issue, and in such a close-knit community, fitting in is the key.
The focus of a Jewish family is to raise children to be G*d-fearing adults, for them to establish a Jewish home on the foundations of our religion. I want that for my son, too. He should get the chance to. But because he is different and has a diagnosis, it doesn't help matters.
For now, making his diagnosis public will hinder more than help him. He himself doesn't know he has autism, though I have tried to explain it to him without using a label.
It's very hard living in a society that values conformity over individuality. I don't complain about being religious, because I love it. There are many good things about being part of my community, but I won't lie: If there's one thing I could change about my religion, it's this: To learn to accept "different" and to value individuality, so that children like my son won't need to hide their diagnosis or be considered "second class citizens."
It hurts my heart to think that people are labeling my autistic child as weird, a result of bad parenting, and who knows what else. I'm staying silent because that's what best for him. People fear what they don't know.
I know the right thing would be to educate and educate some more. But right now, I'm not brave enough to doit. I hope one day I will be.
Until then, I apologize, my child.