13 years ago today, I became a parent. That feels crazy even writing – man, in some ways it feels like forever, and in some ways I remember it like it was yesterday. As with most things Elliott, his arrival did not go as expected, but was unique and surprising in every way. He came into the world with a bang – quite literally.
A home explosion in our back yard caused by a natural gas leak sent me to the hospital with dangerously high blood pressure. Then, as labor progressed, “Lilly” (we were told we were having a girl), didn’t respond well to Pitocin, and ended up arriving via c-section. The whole process was surreal – nothing seemed to be happening as we had planned or envisioned, and when the Dr. announced “it’s a boy” I was beyond shocked. Tom & I just looked at one another, dazed and confused (even more than normal) and then a nurse handed our son to Tom, and all I can remember is looking at his perfect little face, and his eyes blinking from the light. He was beautiful in every way, with smooth features from having not arrived in the traditional squished up style of typical delivery, but looked just as dazed and confused about what had happened as we did. Thus began our life as a family – it’s been a wild ride ever since . . .
Through the years, I’ve continued to be amazed by how much Elliott has accomplished, and by what still challenges him. There was a time when, following his autism diagnosis, we wondered if we would ever learn what his voice sounded like. Now, I fully admit that there are days I wish he would not use his voice quite so much. Granted, talking and communicating are very different things, but E has the former down pat. While his reading comprehension challenges make a lot of things in his life much more challenging, his memory of dates, numbers, directions, etc., is mind blowing. We have met so many other individuals with autism throughout the years, (and later, added our own Ada to the mix), and it is strikingly true what they say – when you’ve met one person with autism, you’ve met one person with autism.
E has his own strengths and challenges, as does his sister, Ada. They have some things in common, but the way that autism impacts their lives is quite different, as are their personalities. My sister’s son, Xander, who is also on the autism spectrum, is also his own unique guy. While they are first cousins, his strengths and challenges are very different than Elliott’s and Ada’s. It’s kind of cool in some ways to note their similarities and differences as they are part of the same family, but can be really difficult to parent, as strategies that work for E don’t always work for A, etc.
Watching my son grow is amazing, beautiful, painful, and scary. 13 – man, that’s edging ever closer to adulthood, and I’m worried for him as he begins to exert his independence in a world that is not always embracing of “difference” and his social naivativity is bound to create additional challenges for him. I admit that as much as I do my best to think of his personal journey and not compare him to his peers it is sometimes hard. In some ways, he’s like any other 13 year-old, kind of funky, confused in his changing body, wanting to be treated as an older guy, but learning and making mistakes along the way. But, in other ways, he’s not at all a typical kind of guy – he still believes in Santa (& the tooth fairy), struggles with change to the point that rearranging the order of errands or where we are seated in a restaurant can cause a major anxiety attack or an epic meltdown, and he needs a very structured schedule in order to have successful days which takes a great deal of effort and time to plan for. As much as I would do anything to take away the struggles that autism has caused for Elliott (and Ada), it’s not an option. It is as much a part of who they are as their eye color.
There are lots of painful moments that still hit me out of the blue – like last weekend at the end of a difficult day, Henry & Ada were busily entertaining themselves, and E called me to the red couch in tears, asking me why his autism makes leisure skills so hard for him. He asked me what other kids do who are almost 13, and I tried to answer him honestly – movies, books, games, sports, etc. He told me that he was sad because he used to like “Mickey Mouse Club” (which he did even just 3 months ago), but that he felt he was getting a bit too old for it now. I hated that he was so sad, and it hurt to talk about things that just happen so naturally for most kids and are such a struggle for him, but just like anything in life, things can only truly change when you are motivated to make change happen. After chatting it through, he enjoyed a game of Life and Battleship, and ended the evening feeling like he had accomplished something. This growing up business is just painful sometimes.
Most of all, what I am truly proud and excited about is that Elliott is very confident about who he is, and he loves being part of his world. While autism has made many things in his life challenging, I also firmly believe that he has a unique ability to “connect” with people not in spite of his autism, but because of it. He always has – even before he could speak.
To be fair, when you meet Elliott, it takes about 10 seconds to realize that something is different. He has his own style, and for him, the typical shy, awkward teenage stuff does not apply. If someone asks if anyone has questions in a large group setting, E is always going to raise his hand, because he just likes to share. He will approach anyone, anywhere, anytime, and ask questions, get information, or just strike up a conversation. If I mutter to myself in the grocery store wondering where to find the sesame oil, he will already be tracking down an employee to ask before I even finish mumbling. Is it often awkward and a bit funky – sure – but what amazes me is that even as I’m cringing on the inside as he oversteps social boundaries I have for myself, he wins people over. He owns his funkiness, heck, he’s even proud of it, and people often dig him because of it. He has friends at almost every grocery store, hardware store, restaurant and school that I can think of – he’s much more outgoing than his dorky parents. And even when getting off to a rocky start with someone, almost always, he leaves them smiling at the end. He just loves interacting with people, and in his own way, finds his way in the world.
There is much that is scary as I look to the future for Elliott. While he has made incredible progress through the years, his challenges are going to impact his life, and some days I can’t help but think about how. It is my job to worry about helping him learn how to tackle his reading challenges even if bit by bit, and to continue to practice social skills so that he can more accurately express when he thinks a fellow middle school classmate is fun vs. telling them he loves them. Yet, for all that challenges him, and despite my Mom worries about his future, I have such admiration for how he finds his way in this world, how he makes connections with others, and how he never gives up when something is important to him. Most of all, I love to see him genuinely happy and doing his best to “connect” with others in his world, bringing smiles and often a hint of joy to so many people that he encounters – just as he did 13 years ago today . . .