My Son's Label Didn't Change Who He Is — It Changed Me

Photo: Courtesy of the Author
jack
Family

I’m typing this crosslegged from my kitchen table, wine beside me, and dinner on the stove. To my left: my oldest son’s abandoned math binder, open to the Unit 1, Lesson 18 homework on finding the area of a cube. Carter and numbers don’t mix, so this is us most afternoons.

On my right: a window, and through that window, all four of my children playing outside with the neighbor kids. The twins are on the swings — still in their ballet leotards and tights, Carter is making up wrestling moves on the trampoline, and Jack is orchestrating a backyard soccer game.

My eyes are on Jack.

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This season, Jack is six and a half. Right now, he’s my only kid who doesn’t need help with his math homework. He’s ahead in reading, too (though we’re working on recall and comprehension). He loves school, especially when his teacher lets the class read under their desks with flashlights.

Out of the four of my kids, Jack makes friends most easily. He’s been enrolled in school for a month, and he’s already assembled a neighborhood gang of six other kids that meet up daily to ride bikes, scooter, jump on trampolines, and eat all my snacks. He has a “crush on two girls” at school and has already scored an invite to his classmate’s birthday pool party.

Jack is also the most naturally athletic kid I’ve got, at least this season. He doesn’t mind bumps and spills, and he craves physical movement and sensory input. He started soccer this week, and the sheer joy on his face is entertainment for a week.

Jack is stylish; he dresses sharply and always primps his hair. His personal aesthetic is frighteningly frat-boy for me, but that might also be because he strikes an uncanny resemblance to a Greek Adonis. Golden hair, golden skin, hazel eyes, chiseled jaw.

He’s taller than everyone else his age and builds muscle easily. Anyway, when he gels his hair into a faux hawk and pulls on an Abercrombie shirt, it’s a little hard for me to take my 6–year old seriously. Thank God he’s got the ultimate 1st-grade buck-tooth smile — but he even makes that look handsome.

Jack hates bullies and loves Minecraft. He is charming and smart, thoughtful and our family’s resident cuddle master. He eats all of his broccoli and takes piano lessons on Fridays.

And yes, Jack is still autistic.

And no, I don’t have to tell you “how” he is or if I’m sure, or take it as a compliment when you say “but he doesn’t look autistic”.

My second son was diagnosed on the spectrum at two years old. In the months following that appointment, my brain seesawed between complete, paralyzed numbness and hurtling down a one-way track of questions that no one could answer. Would he have friends? Would he be teased? Would he struggle in school? Would he ever be able to drive a car?

Four years later, and I’ve learned this lesson: No one can answer those questions about Jack or any other kid, neurotypical or otherwise. Especially not their mother.

My oldest, Carter, is “gifted”. He was memorizing human anatomy by three and breezed through kindergarten at four. Now he’s 10, and I spend an hour a night working on math with him. He is very shy and introspective — making friends is a slow, agonizing process for him. When he plays sports, he is all knees and elbows.

When my first son was still my only son, I decided to go for my graduate degree in Gifted Education. I was a teacher, and, hey, this could help me at home, too. Throughout my entire Master’s program, the coursework crisscrossed with another program — one for educators studying Autistic learners. There was a lot of overlap.

Largely, brain science is a field of qualitative studies that rely heavily on working theories. Though there’s a deluge of information out there about neurodivergence, it’s also predominantly mysterious.

How and why do we think the way that we do is a real brain bender (buh dum tss). Why could my first son tell me the function of the trachea at age three, while my second son was still nonverbal at two?

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In my last year of teaching high school, I taught only students who had been identified as gifted. Brilliant, out-of-the-box thinkers. Insecure, sensitive thinkers. Underperforming, unmotivated thinkers.

And yet, most of my students could also be labeled socially awkward — no matter how high their grade point average was, how many friends they had, or how talented they were as musicians or athletes. They were anxious, preoccupied, obsessed, and sensitive. They had sensory issues, tics, and trouble making eye contact.

At his diagnosis, the doctor told me, “Jack has many strengths. Fifteen percent of these kiddos outgrow this disorder by six years old. If he gets intensive help, if he gets ABA therapy for 40 hours a week, we could see this go away.”

And even then, in the midst of my grief and confusion, I remember being angry at that suggestion. How can someone “be” something one moment and then “outgrow” it? Why give a parent some kind of 15% hope that one day she’d wake up and stop obsessively worrying whether or not her kid would fit in or be socially capable?

Autism, not unlike the condition of being human, isn’t a cold that works its way out of a kid’s system — if only he gets the perfect combination of therapies and early interventions. Autism means that this person, in one way or many ways, is taking a road less traveled to get where he’s going. Will he get to where I think the right place is? Will he get there on time? Will other people accept him?

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The thing is, diagnosis or not, no one can answer those questions for a parent of any kid.

I didn’t believe in a cure for autism then, and I don’t now. The kinds of support that Jack needs are often going to be different than the kinds of support Carter needs.

But, um, isn’t that true for all parents with more than one kid? Or true for every teacher looking at a full roster? Don’t they all learn at different rates? Isn’t that rate constantly changing? At any given point — at any given season — of a kid’s life, they’re going to need individualized planning, support, curriculum, whatever.

Teachers and parents: we monitor and adjust, monitor and adjust. We do the best we can for that day, and then tomorrow will be different.

In the four years since Jack’s diagnosis, I have said yes to occupational therapies, speech therapies, and social groups. There’s been ABA therapy and clinic-based therapy and home-based therapy. I’ve explored medication, diet, and supplements. I’ve applied for scholarships and government help.

But I’ve also said no. I’ve said no to borrowing worry and stress. No to losing the joy and peace that comes with loving my kids, exactly as they are, today.

I have stopped worrying about Jack’s future more than I worry about any of my other childrens’ futures. Honestly, who knows if any of them are going to be able to drive or if they’ll get asked to the prom or get a job.

It is no longer my job to know. It never was. It’s just my job to help them find out.

I’ve let Jack show up as Jack — and it’s pretty awesome. Now if I can just nip his habit of calling me “bruh” and steer him away from any jungle juice…

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Heather Lynne Sparks is a former high school English teacher and Gifted Education specialist and recently started spilling her guts over on Medium. Follow her on Instagram

This article was originally published at Medium. Reprinted with permission from the author.