The axiom that advises, “If you’ve met one person with autism, you’ve met one person with autism,” is true. I bring it up to better frame the story I’m about to share. In other words, your mileage may vary.
Disclaimers aside, I know one of the things we struggled with as parents of a child on the spectrum was the issue of when to tell him about his diagnosis. And I also know that hearing what follows when we were in the midst of trying to figure all that out would have been incredibly welcome.
Ryan is having some issues with one boy who, for whatever reason, is not nice to him. It’s fairly typical middle-school stupidity: name-calling, shunning from the group, etc. It is made more complex because Ryan doesn’t understand why this particular boy doesn’t like him, and can’t just let it go no matter how much we advise him to.
He will bring up the conflict at random times, returning to unanswered questions in a way that suggests it is never far from the front of his mind.
Veronica recently relayed one such conversation. Ryan asked her, point-blank, if the boy calls him names because he has autism.
We’ve gotten more used to this as Ryan has grown more comfortable understanding who he is, and both why some things are difficult for him and why others are incredibly easy.
Aside: when discussing his diagnosis with Ryan, we always point out both strengths and struggles. We want to make sure he understands there is nothing wrong with him just because some things — breaking routines, social situations, etc., — can be a challenge. Just the same, we need him to understand some of the amazing qualities — focus, attention to detail, miraculous memory, drive — that come along with his unique brain wiring. We don’t believe understanding one without the other, either way, does him any good.
Despite all this, hearing Ryan casually talk about autism is still a bit jarring and takes some getting used to. It’s the way he talks about it that offers us reassurance that telling him about the diagnosis was the right thing to do.
When Ryan asked Veronica if autism was the reason this particular boy picks on him, she answered, honestly, “I don’t know.”
He responded, “well I’m not ashamed I have autism.”
Her answer (probably after regaining her composure as I know I would have needed to): “Neither are we, nor should you be.”
In that brief exchange is the evidence that telling Ryan about his diagnosis is empowering in exactly the way we hoped.
In telling me this story via text message, Veronica added, “quite a journey.”
Indeed. It has taken us years to get to this place, achieving a comfort level and understanding before we could discuss autism with Ryan honestly without demonizing it. We needed to walk the path, from fear, to wanting to “fix” our child, to realizing he doesn’t need fixing because he’s not broken, to handing him the power to understand why some things are difficult for him. Along the way, we have watched a self-confident young man emerge, and that is the best feeling of all.