My son Walker is six years old. I know I’m biased because he’s mine, but I think he might be one of the most delightful human beings on earth. I’m not kidding. He is cute and funny and unbelievably smart. Like taught himself how to read before kindergarten smart. Walker is just a really bright kid who makes me so happy.
He’s on the autism spectrum. We don’t use functioning labels, and I haven’t found a descriptor that really conveys to people who don’t know us how autism presents for Walker. I guess it’s better if I just tell you about my beautiful boy.
Our first indicator that he was autistic came when his speech skills fell way behind his peers. He went almost silent for a few months around his second birthday when he recognized that what he knew and what he could convey were so, so far apart. Years of speech and language therapy have expanded his capability for spoken communication. He is able to convey his thoughts with typical language, and most people can understand him most of the time now. It’s a source of huge pride for him. No other method of communication ever interested him. It was spoken language or nothing, and he worked hard to get here.
Walker is very bright, a good student, and tests above average in all areas of academics. He spends part of his time in a general education classroom, and part in small-group learning. He is still working on a lot of the social and behavioral parts of school; I get a daily chart and he has great days and tough days.
Because Walker speaks and is not intellectually disabled, in some settings, he is indistinguishable from his same-age peers. Other parents of autistic kiddos or behavior professionals would be able to pick out his adorable little autism-specific quirks and traits, but most people would not even notice him in a crowd.
That always sounds like a good thing to people who aren’t familiar with autism, but it’s worrisome as his mom. Of course, I don’t want him to stand out in a way that makes his life more difficult. No mother wants her child to struggle. But autism is a part of Walker that isn’t going away, doesn’t need to be cured, and is not a deficiency. Autism makes Walker Walker, and he deserves to be his full, authentic self.
He needs to stand out sometimes so that he can be accommodated in the ways that allow him to thrive. Sometimes he needs extra time, space or help, but when you can’t tell someone is different, it’s easy to forget that they need different things. I worry that throughout the course of his entire life his apparent proximity to neurotypicality will stand in the way of his ability to get the help he sometimes needs.
Here’s the thing though: In some situations, Walker’s neurology is quite obvious to everyone around.
When he isn’t blending right in, he is really, really standing out, and that means Walker is sometimes “othered,” and that is tough to swallow.
My boy sometimes needs a little help to navigate situations that other kids learn to handle through observation alone, but he still wants to be included. He will say no if he doesn’t want to participate. I wish people would always at least ask. Nothing is more crushing as a mom than when someone decides for him the he wouldn’t or couldn’t enjoy something and excludes him. I am dreading the day when he gets old enough to be aware of those situations. I can’t hide him under my wings and protect him from the exclusion forever, and it breaks my heart.
Being Walker’s mom is not hard. Sure, he has his days when his impulsive behavior makes me kind of want to hide in my closet and eat chocolate, but he’s six, so I think that’s par for the course. I don’t think he will be cracking eggs into the back of the toilet forever.
But it’s not hard to raise him, advocate for him or accommodate him because I love him exactly how he is. Hearing “autism” come out of the doctor’s mouth was intimidating at first, but it’s been years now, and we’ve got this.
What’s hard is wondering if I’m the only one who will ever take the time to see the fullness of his absolute brilliance and kindness. Will he find “his people?” Does his future hold rich relationships with people who don’t care that, for example, he takes a zillion years to leave the house because he has to pack his bucket or backpack full of whatever he’s latched onto that day? Will he find people who are like, “Heck yeah, Bucket Boy! Let’s totally hang out?” I don’t want him to find people who tolerate him or treat him like a sidekick or a pet. I want him to feel like an equal in all of his relationships, and be fully known and fully loved. My hopes for Walker are that he will find meaningful connections in whatever ways feel right to him, and that he will never be lonely.
I guess in a lot of ways, I have these hopes and worries for all three of my children, but when you’re raising one that’s a little different, it’s a bit harder to quiet that worried voice. You know the one? It speaks up when you’re watching your perfect child run and play and laugh and asks, “When you can’t protect him anymore, will he ever be this happy again?”
My dreams for Walker have been the same since he was flickering heart on a black and white ultrasound screen. I have always wanted, more than anything else, for him to be kind, happy and loved. He was born with kindness running through his veins. At six sweet years old, he is definitely content and happy.
And oh my gosh, the depths to which he is loved.