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My Dearest Son Ryan,
Let me start by telling you that I love you and am so unbelievably proud of you and the little man you’ve become. I know that if I were faced with some of the things you are, you would find me whining and complaining about the hand I was dealt. You don’t do that, not even close. Instead of being emotionally or physically knocked down, I watch you hold your head high, unafraid and unfazed by the world around you. The truth is, it seems that instead of a son looking up to his father, I find myself looking up to you, staggered by the wonderment before me.
I have to be honest with you Ryan, when you were two and your Mom told me she thought you might be autistic I was confused and downright angry. The only dim reference I had to Autism was Dustin Hoffman’s performance in Rain Man, and since I’d never seen you count fallen toothpicks or cards in a Vegas casino, I thought she was full of it. Instead I chose to believe that the reason you didn’t look us in the eye, spent all of your time alone uninterested in socializing, and weren’t even beginning to talk yet was because you were going through a “phase”, or that you were just a “late bloomer”. Sure, I read the pieces of literature your Mom had brought home (for she was consumed with the idea), and yes, I listened to your Mom and Grandma drone on and on about the possibilities of you being autistic, but no matter what I wouldn’t surrender myself over to the idea that you, my first born son, would have a disability.
One day Mom had gone to the store and it was just you and me home alone. I went into your Mom’s and my room where I found you, as usual, sitting in the middle of the bed watching a Baby Einstein video about neighborhood animals for probably the five hundredth time. I sat down next to you and began saying your name. Over and over, trying to get your attention, the name Ryan rolled off of my lips. At first I said it with acknowledgment, then with sternness, and then with insistence. It wasn’t long before I found myself looking at your profile saying the name Ryan with panic and frustration, and not once did you look me in the eye. I put my hand on your cheek and forced you to look at me. It was then, looking into your ocean blue eyes, where you were clearly a million miles away emotionally, that I realized that this was no phase you were going through, that this was something I was going to have to face.
As a man and a father I’ve always been imprisoned by the belief that if something is not working I must fix it. If a windup toy stops operating, open it up and reattach the spring. If a chain falls from the sprockets of a bicycle, place it back on. For a long time I felt I needed to fix you. I saw Autism as a disease, and our parenting as the cure. We bought all the books, listened to all of the specialists and followed their guidance (even though at the time I thought some of the things they had us do were crazy). Mom and I would take shifts napping, for you would only sleep two hours at a time. We took you to the park once and only lasted five minutes because every time we’d attempt to make our way to the jungle gym you’d wrench your hand away from ours and sprint to the parking lot because you enjoyed lying on the asphalt examining different car’s tires. As I strapped you back into your car seat I remember thinking to myself that at least you’ll love the job you get at Big-O Tires.
Going to family functions where there were going to be other young parents and children were always an emotional and physical triathlon between your Mother and me. One of us would always have to keep an eye on the front door, because you can open any lock and any chance you’d get you’d make a run for it. We would then check on you every four minutes, just to see how you were socializing with your peers. It was so painful for me to watch you standing in the corner of a child’s playroom, waving a wooden block with the letter K on it vigorously in front of your eye, while other four year olds stared at you with confusion. It got to the point where when we were asked to attend a Christmas party or a July 4th barbeque we would just say that we were sick or too busy. In reality though it was too hard to have other children ask me what was wrong with you, or to have their parents look at us with an “I feel sorry for you” gawk.
Grocery stores weren’t much different. You see, since you have a wonderful attraction to all things shape, number, or letter related, a grocery store could easily be considered your mecca. As we’d walk through the large rectangular sliding glass doors, you’d be confronted by numbers dangling over each aisle, and as you’d walk down these rows you’d see they were lined with square, rectangle, and circular packaging, all of them with letters and numbers prominently staring at you. As one might hear an animal growl before it attacks, I would hear a squealing laughter building within your little frame. I would know at that moment it was only a matter of time before you sprung. As your devilish smile began to grow your eyes began to squint with it. Your hand would begin to wiggle out from within mine. I would look over and your arms would be flapping, as if you were a bird attempting flight for the first time, and then that would be it. You would wriggle and move until you were completely free of me and then tear down the aisles knocking over cereal boxes, opening and closing the refrigerator doors because hinges, in your mind, should be considered an artform. I thought that if I put you in the belted part of the shopping cart that this might rectify the situation, but in actuality it only intensified it. You would begin rocking back and forth reaching for anything you wanted to get your hands on. You would then whine loudly when you couldn’t reach the coveted item, sending the sound of your frustration throughout the store. As we would leave I would tally up all of the workers and customers I had to apologize to for the wreckage we left within our wake. All of them, I would feel, were giving me a disapproving glare, as if they were trying to let me know that your antics were a product of my bad parenting. Now I don’t believe in labels, but man son there have been times I wanted to have a shirt made for you that read, “I’m Autistic, Take Cover”.
When your little bother, Beckett, was born I have to admit that I was scared. I knew there was going to come a time that he would exist in your shadow, looking to you for guidance, wanting you to be his big brother. At the time I didn’t think you were capable of this. I figured that every day for you was a struggle already, and if we added a little brother to the mix it would only weigh you down, holding back your progress. I couldn’t have been more wrong. As Beckett has gotten older, I have watched him as he eagerly learns from you, while watching you effortlessly rise to the challenge of being a big brother. Your love for letters, shapes, and numbers has rubbed off on him to the point where he learned how to read and write by the time he was 3. Your passion for examining the world around you has shown him the true essence of beauty, and the joy of appreciating and experiencing every moment to the fullest.
One day, like so many others, I felt inadequate as a father. You had taught Beckett so many things, and I, a grown adult, couldn’t save you from being autistic. I was sitting on the floor in the hall with my head in my hands, trying to hide the tears, for I was in fear of showing you that I was weak. And that’s when it happened…better yet son, that’s when you happened. I felt something brushing lightly against my face, and I unshielded my eyes to see you sitting next to me patting my forehead with your delicate little hand. Now granted you have OCD, and the patting you were doing was more than likely a tick of sorts, but there was an emotion and a realization behind your presence that changed everything. You turned your head toward me, and looked me in the eyes with that same million mile stare I forced you to give me on that day on your Mom’s and my bed, and that’s when I realized you looked to me. I didn’t have to move your face towards mine, and I didn’t have to make you give me eye contact. This you did on your own. And in a flash, our relationship played out before me. I could feel the overwhelming roller coaster of emotions I had when you came into this world, I could smell the scent you had as a baby as you slept on my chest on the couch in the afternoon, I could hear the laughter we shared the first time you did something you thought was funny, and I could feel the joy we have as a father and son. And that’s when I realized that Autism is not a disease. Just because you don’t communicate the way most people do doesn’t make you foul or broken. Just because you’re not a social butterfly that fits in with what this world sees as normal doesn’t mean that you need to be cured. Autism is a condition. It’s taking your time and experiencing the world around you. Autism is the moment you get when you are close to understanding something spiritually. It’s something that needs to be loved and cherished and understood, and Ryan I thank you from the bottom of my heart for understanding, cherishing, and loving me.