April has once again come and gone. It shouldn’t seem different to me than the passing of any other month, but it does. You see, at some point April was designated as Autism Awareness month. During this time store chains ask people to donate money at check-out and tape paper cutouts of puzzle pieces on their walls. More than once I’ll stand there with my credit card in hand, staring blankly at the cashier as she waits for me to answer if I want to add a donation to go towards Autism Awareness. My son is Autistic, but she doesn’t know that. Do I give a dollar so my name can be scribbled on that puzzle piece and taped on the wall when I’ve already spent thousands of dollars fighting for my son? Do I laugh like I want to and say, “Trust me; I’m more aware of Autism than you’ll ever think of being”? Those are thoughts that run through my brain as I slowly nod and pay the extra dollar.
Sometimes I feel like I’m a bad Autism mom because I don’t fight on a public platform. I don’t organize fun runs and social gatherings. I don’t wear a blue puzzle pin on my lapel. I don’t even have an Autism ribbon magnet on my car. Quite frankly, it sucks most of my energy just trying to research and implement what I need to be doing just for my own child; so fighting for the thousands of others seems daunting– even crippling.
But saying that I don’t fight publicly is not saying I don’t speak about Autism. I do every day, and I have literally bibles full of materials and everything ever sent home concerning my son’s “special needs.” I’m open with people about what he has to the point that I’m having to stop myself. I tell him he can’t let Autism hold him back, yet I find myself using it as an excuse so that others won’t just think he’s weird, impolite, or just unintelligent. Most people look at me now and say something like “Oh, I didn’t have a clue,” and then I realize that I just labeled him—handicapped him– in the eyes of others. I say I want him to be treated normally, yet I’m making sure he isn’t.
My son’s Autism has made him an easy target for predators. Just like in the animal kingdom, predators are able to pick the easy target out of the crowd. They sense their weaknesses, and once their prey is in their sights– they go in for the kill. My son has more than once been on the receiving end of targeted abuse. At school he has been physically attacked more than once on the playground by the same child who waited for him to wander away from the others as he often does to play by himself. Another child thought it would be funny to try to shove his head in a toilet, but we were lucky that some other kids went for help.
At a summer skate camp my son figured out quickly that he didn’t have the same physical skills as the other kids so he resorted to riding his board by sitting down. This annoyed another boy to the point that he hit my son with his skateboard and then stole his shoes and equipment and threw them over a fence where he couldn’t reach them.
Each of these encounters has left my son with bruises that run much deeper than his flesh. He always puts on a tuff façade and holds his tears at bay until he finally breaks; and I hold and rock him as he weeps in my arms, and I do my best to hide my own tears as his pain rips at my soul. As his mother I want to be the soft place for him to land, but also the solid, unmoving support that holds him up when he’s feeling weak; so I don’t cry in front of him. I march on like he does until my own wall crumbles and I find myself shut in the laundry room where the sounds of the machines will drown out my crying as I sob into a dirty towel. These are the times I become consumed with my anger, fears, and sadness while forgetting the blessings of my son and the opportunities he gives me and others to grow as humans.
So here it is May, and Autism awareness month has come and gone again without me officially recognizing it. I think it’s because I knew it would be so difficult for me to do and I wasn’t sure what message I wanted to give. I don’t want people to read this and only have pity for him and the others like him. I don’t want the bullies and predators to be the ones whose actions are remembered; so I decided to post below the speech I’ve formed in my head more than once when I’ve been crying in the laundry room. This is the monologue I rehearse in my head, that if given the chance, I would deliver to the bully who’s harassed my son. This is the message about Autism I want to share.
Today you made the decision to hurt my son in one way or another. Something inside you whispered in your ear that by making my son feel less, you would feel greater. You chose to put aside kindness and inflict hurt. You and you alone chose to do this.
I know that you had reason for doing this. You hurt inside. Someone in your life has made you feel like you made my son feel. For once you wanted to feel like you had the power, and so you chose to make my son feel even weaker than he already does. I imagine it was easy for you to do. He’s small and doesn’t have many friends around him to help keep him safe. He probably didn’t even fight back at first because he didn’t quite understand what was happening. But you accomplished what you set out to do: you made him feel even more different, more of an outcast, more of a loser.
As a mother I can say that I truly ache for you and whatever makes you hurt inside. You did not ask for whatever unfairness has found you, but neither did my son. He did not ask for the doctors to make mistakes at his birth. He did not ask to be born not breathing and have to be revived. He did not ask for countless illnesses and a first year of life that was physically excruciating. He did not ask for a condition that made his clothes feel like razorblades against his skin. He did not ask for sounds and smells and lights to be amplified by his senses to the point of being painful. He did not ask to feel like he isn’t even connected to his own body. He did not ask for Autism. He did not ask for you to remind him that he will never have the “normal” life you do.
You probably would never want to admit that you and my son are similar, but you are. You both feel less about yourself because of someone or something else. But that is where the similarity stops. You see, my son has every right to be just as angry as you. He has every reason to want to go make someone feel as bad as he does—but he doesn’t. Everyday my son chooses to take a different path than you did. He chooses to stand back up and walk back into the groups that make him feel different and bad about himself. He chooses to smile and try one more time to make a friend. He has done this everyday of his life. You knock him down and he gets back up. He chooses not to bully to make himself feel better, and that is why he’s my hero. He is the bravest person I know. His courage runs deep and the saddest thing is that you will never know those things about him because you only saw the outside. You saw a coward where I see a lion.
Maybe if you had taken a different path you could have been friends. Maybe you would have found someone that would have understood your pain and stood by your side, but you chose differently. You physically overcame my son, but know that you did not win. You’ll never win until you learn to choose differently, and my son and I pray that one day you will.
“What makes a king out of a slave? Courage! What makes the flag on the mast to wave? Courage! What makes the elephant charge his tusk in the misty mist, or the dusky dusk? What makes the muskrat guard his musk? Courage! What makes the sphinx the seventh wonder? Courage! What makes the dawn come up like thunder? Courage! What makes the Hottentot so hot? What puts the “ape” in apricot? What have they got that I ain’t got?”
-The Cowardly Lion
The Wizard of Oz