When they say your son is normal, and not just normal, but gifted in art, you know they pulled the wrong kid’s file. But then they produce a picture titled “What I Want To Be When I Grow Up” that reads “palentolijizt” (not bad for a kindergartener) and there, in his green (always green) shirt, his definitive blue eyes twinkling, stands your son. He’s labeled himself “Me.” Everything is labeled in his suddenly legible handwriting, right down to a red apple peeking out of a blue lunch box, just like the one Daddy takes to work every day. With so many labels, there can never be any misunderstanding. “Me” has a chisel in his hand and a smile on his face―no, a smirk―because in this two-dimensional cross-section of his world, the anatomically-correct dinosaur fossil is visible under his feet, and his success is assured, and he knows it. At school, success is his floor.
You thought you were his floor: the stable base that would support him while he conducted the business of life. A surface so reliable that he can take you for granted. But it hasn’t worked out that way.
You think about the crayons of your childhood, the 48-count box with the secret compartment underneath where you hid the wing of a monarch you’d accidentally killed. Occasionally you’d look at the wing and cry because you ruined everything, your very own butterfly effect caused by the absence of flight. When the crayons came out, you’d make your mother trace the same picture over and over, a girl and a horse, and you colored it the same way every time (yellow mane, pink shirt) because that was the way it should be. It was an immutable fact, just like how he knows he has to wear green every day.
He wouldn’t even touch a crayon. Fine motor delay, you eventually learned, is just another common symptom of “being on the spectrum.” Everyone says early intervention is key, but it took you four years just to convince a doctor he had high-functioning autism, even though you knew since Day One because it was like looking into a mirror. A mirror that doesn’t make eye contact. You’ve never gotten your official diagnosis; when you were little, nobody knew girls could have Asperger’s, because they exhibit the symptoms differently (they often love to color, for example), and now you’re too old to bother with interventions. Your life will always be too intense, too overwhelming, too lonely.
You’d learned some coping mechanisms in the meantime, of course, ways to sift through the input to find the necessary pieces to put life’s puzzle together. Mostly through avoidance: don’t watch that movie (too sad, too much camera shake), don’t go to that party (too loud, too many missed social cues), don’t wear that shirt (too tight, too scratchy). And don’t even humor your obsessions, because you’ll never be able to escape. Sometimes it feels like you’ve cut out so much that there isn’t anything left, and you don’t want that for him.
So while fighting for his diagnosis and access to professionals, you tried to treat him on your own, but you didn’t know how to fix all the ways he was just like you when you were his age. How do you teach someone to be not you? How do you teach skills you’ve never had?
You became an expert in him instead and applied the knowledge you’ve gained over your lifetime of superlatives. He can’t find his bearings in the openness of space, can’t concentrate while lost in it all, so you hug him tight when he needs to focus. When he overloads and hits himself, you wrangle him into the small, dark fort in his bedroom with the heavy blankets and leave him alone in the quiet, even though your instincts tell you to comfort him. You coach him in what little you know of human social interaction, like how reciting dinosaur facts does not constitute a conversation, despite that being your preference, too. You don’t even bother getting out the crayons anymore, because his lack of manual dexterity frustrates him. And you make sure all his clothes are green.
When you do everything right, he emerges and spreads the most spectacular wings: a reward worth every sacrifice. Then he is able to channel the intensity of his nervous system into an indefatigable enthusiasm for life, a surprising sense of humor borne of unusual neural connections, and a love so vast and crushing that it makes your life feel full again. That’s who the world needs, that’s who he deserves to be. But without you and your constant vigilance, it will never happen.
Or so you thought.
“Congratulations,” the Special Education team says as you leave the meeting, the paleontologist drawing tucked safely back into his file as proof. They’ve completed their formal screening, as you and his doctor requested on his first day of kindergarten, and have determined that he does not qualify for school services. He’s just too normal.
“Whatever you did must have worked.”
At school, not only does he easily spread those joyous, clever, loving wings, but he also transforms into a creature you’ve never seen: one that sits still, follows directions, eagerly participates in every activity, and excels in art. Somehow, he’s even popular. Without any special effort, school has accomplished what you never could. You should be happy, but instead you just feel lonely and confused again. Once more you have been abandoned in the trenches with the son waiting for you at home, where your reality does not match the school records. Where being somebody’s floor is hard work.
When you get home you want to yell at him: “Have you been punking me all these years?” Instead, you say hello while he does somersaults on the couch and ignores you. You hold him in a tight hug and ask, “How was school?” but he doesn’t answer. Instead, he wriggles free and toe-walks in circles and tells you that raptors (like the osprey) are descended from theropod dinosaurs (like the T. Rex), and therefore dinosaurs are still alive today. You wanted to be a paleontologist at his age too, remember; you memorized your brother’s college textbook on the subject, but it’s not about you now. Not anymore. So you tell him “That’s right.” What a smart boy.
If he is not punking you, if he is normal at school, then he is still autistic at home only because of you, no matter how much credit the SPED team thinks you deserve. You are his floor, after all. Maybe you’re failing at being the bedrock you try to be; maybe instead you are an earthquake under his feet, and he can’t keep his balance. Or maybe you are quicksand, trapping him here with you in this land of hypersensitivity.
Or are you are the meteor that will destroy everything?
You don’t know how school does it, but your guilt fixes nothing. What you do know is that, in your expert opinion, this agitated little boy is desperately in need of a snack. That, at least, is something you can provide. In the kitchen you find his baby sister with Daddy at the dining table, playing with all those unused crayons. She loves them. She takes them out of the box, scribbles, lines them up, puts them back in. Out, scribble, line, in. She will do this indefinitely. You notice she is lining them up by color, obsessively. Strangely. Someday they will tell you if she’s normal.