Autism threw a lot of wrenches into my parenting plans. Before I had kids, I had Big Plans for the things I knew would make my kids super creative, smart, kind, present, helpful, successful, and much more. These included, but were not limited to: no TV ever, no junk food, my kids would spend most of their time free-ranging and exploring the natural world, we'd all read for an hour every night.....
But then, I realized Liam, my non-verbal 7-year-old with autism, adored Elmo and was motivated to learn when his team of therapists used videos as rewards. Ditto on the reward potential of veggie sticks, lollipops, and gummi bears. And free-ranging? Not for my kids. Because of Liam's tendencies to run-off without a thought for his own safety, I keep a very close eye on him, even when we're in our backyard.
There've been a lot of moments over the last seven years when I've felt like an absolute failure, but occasionally, one of my kids does something that makes me know—despite TV, junk food, and (necessary) helicopter parenting—that we're on the right track.
One of these happened last Sunday, and I just have to share it:
We were at a playground that's a favorite because it's surrounded by a large fence (meaning we can give Liam a bit of freedom and space—our version of free-ranging). My husband and I sat on a bench while Liam and Eliot played in the sandbox with two other kids, brothers ages 3 and 6. Liam sifted sand (over and over and over) while Eliot chatted with the boys. Neither of the other kids asked about Liam, but I could see them watching his hand flapping and stimming, hesitating when trying to talk to him. When Liam came into the orbit of Eliot and the other boys, Eliot touched Liam's arm and said—this is a direct quote— "This is my best brother, Liam. He speaks autism. When he was a baby, he could talk but now he points to letters to tell us what he's thinking."
He speaks autism.
I was blown away by those three words.
This interaction was such a big deal on so many levels—because we've often worried our boys would not have a normal sibling relationship. Because we want Eliot to advocate for his brother and enjoy his company. Because we've done lots of modeling of love and acceptance over the last few years. Because we've tried to create a house of respect and equality. Because Eliot's worried for months about autism, asking questions like: "When I'm as old as Liam, will I have autism?" or "Will Liam ever not-have autism?" In his own 4-year-old way, Eliot's been grappling with autism, and this interaction at the park showed us what he's never put into words before: I understand my brother's different. I accept him for who he is. I know he's working to communicate with us. I love my best brother.
I looked at my husband. He grinned at me.
"Autism awareness and advocacy begin at home," I said.
He nodded. And for a long time after that, we sat in silence, watching our boys play, a little less worried about the future, proud of them and so, so grateful for moments like these.
Image provided by Jamie Pacton (the boys eating donuts at the park on a recent visit with thier grandparents).