Sam is my 10 year-old son. He has high-functioning autism. I struggle daily to find the balance between talking openly with him about his diagnosis, and letting him just be a kid.
Every parent who travels this road knows that slapping a label on your child can be social homicide. But I think Sam needs to understand why his brain works the way it does; how it makes him exceptionally gifted in certain areas like visual processing, math, and rote memorization of spoken language, to name a few.
It is also the reason that he has a 1:1 aide during his school day, struggles to sit still in a classroom, and has trouble understanding how to start or maintain a conversation.
I think he needs to know why he has these challenges in order to conquer them. He also needs to feel proud of the inestimable gifts that go along with his neurological configuration, which is different than most.
I try to be honest and open about it, so that in his mind, it is simply a piece of the fabric of his personality. But I don’t dwell on it. This diagnosis does not define him.
Sam is echolalic, which means he has an extraordinary ability to memorize large chunks of language that he hears from other people, computer games, TV shows. (We received one of our first “this kid is different” red flags when he began reciting the entire text of the children’s book “The Polar Express” — verbatim — at age three.) When speaking spontaneously, he avoids eye contact, his delivery is monotone, and he struggles to find words. But when he repeats something that he has heard, he has all the punch and inflection of a seasoned Shakespearean actor performing a soliloquy.
Sam has a school open house coming up next week. Some of the kids are memorizing poems, to be recited solo in front of a large group of parents and students. A few afternoons ago, he ran inside right after the bus dropped him off, and proceeded to recite — from memory — not one, but all five poems that some of his classmates are learning. He has a wonderful teacher this year who plays to his strengths, and Sam will be delivering one of the recitations next Thursday.
Last night, just before bed, he was running around his room, laughing because he had put on a new pair of underwear over the ones he was already wearing. He was literally bouncing off all four walls and the floor. We have a trampoline and some occupational therapy-approved swings in our yard, and Sam gets sensory integration OT sessions at school every day to help him settle into his body, so that he can sit still. While I understand that his “wall bouncing” is neurologically-based behavior, I still get annoyed when it happens at bedtime when we’re all fried and just want to shut down the parenting engines for the night.
So, while I failed at my efforts to maintain my patience, and chased him around the house with his jammies in my hand, he announced, “Mom! I have a poem!”
Exasperated, I said, “Sam, that’s great, but right now I don’t want to hear it. You need to go to bed.”
He went ahead anyway, smiling and trying not to laugh.
He is often hard to reach. When I see a twinkle of presence in his eyes, I can’t deny him. So I listened.
He smiled and said, “This is a poem about me!” and improvised the following:
Sam’s Secrets Revealed
I’m a great builder.
I am an artist.
I have autism.
I have two overdue library books!
Baseball is my favorite sport.
I hit so many grand slams.
And I’m wearing two pairs of underwear right now!
He could have pulled the actual rug out from under me and I wouldn’t have noticed. In that one brief piece of improv’d poetry, Sam revealed to me that he knows he has autism, and that he sees it as just one item in the middle of a list of many things that describe him.
I was elated.
And I’m wearing two pairs of underwear right now.