As I’ve mentioned, Adrian and I have chosen to reveal Martin’s autism only on a limited basis. We tell intimate friends and confidants, and also other parents with children around Martin’s age, who can easily spot the differences in his development.
There are a few exceptions, mostly persons who ended up somehow in the “need to know” circle or who found out coincidentally. My hairdresser, whom I visit four or five times a year, fits this latter category. I don’t even remember how anymore—I may have accidentally given the real reason when I had to move a hair appointment for one of Martin’s therapy sessions—but she knows that Martin gets special attention for developmental delays. Not specifically autism. “Developmental delays.”
She also has recently had a child herself, a baby boy.
I got my hair cut this week. The hairdresser and I chatted superficially. After a while she asked after Martin. I said he’s in a new school, and it’s going well, and he’s so big, and yes, he’s getting better. The usual. I concluded quickly and tried to push the conversation toward Will and Jada Pinkett Smith’s home design choices, which were featured in the Architectural Digest in my lap.
“It’s heinous,” my hairdresser responded as I pointed to Mrs. Smith’s meditation room. “How often do you think they use that room?” Then she lowered her voice and leaned toward me. “So, like, how did you figure it out? I mean, what should I be looking for?”
I stiffened. “Oh, just, you know.” Pause. “Just—you know. We noticed that he couldn’t do things that other kids could. He repeated what we said, instead of making up new sentences. Stuff like that. Look, there’s a cat in the meditation room.”
“So when did you start seeing he was different? Was it right away?” She kept angling for information, for the harbinger of whether her son too would bear the curse of “developmental delay.”
I have no desire, none at all, to serve as neurotypicality guidepost or cautionary tale. I am hoping that my readers take encouragement from Martin’s progress toward recovery. As to the other end of this journey, however—as to our discovery of Martin’s ASD and its subsequent diagnosis—I do not want our experience exploited as example. I can’t fully explain why this is the case. Indeed, before we knew Martin had any disorder, I too sought guidance. I can remember asking my mother, regarding a severely autistic boy she knows, what the signs were and when his parents observed them. I worried about autism. Parents today worry about autism.
I think I’ve become jealous of those who have only the worry, not the reality. Now that Adrian and I belong to the subset of parents with autistic children, I’m more interested in helping those in the same boat, not in reassuring others that they won’t also be set adrift.
I suppose that’s not very nice of me.
But what would I tell a new parent, anyway? To get to three or four years old, and then stop worrying? Even I, with one three-year-old child, know parenthood doesn’t work that way. As soon as the fear of autism passes, another demon waits to take its place. I have a friend whose pleasant, engaging brother showed no signs of mental illness until his freshman year at a prestigious university, then plunged headlong into debilitating schizophrenia. I have an acquaintance whose son began at age nine to exhibit symptoms of depression and, despite every intervention and the unrelenting love of his family, took his own life as a teenager. There is no safety point. So why bother trying to relax?
Or conversely, why bother worrying?
Until you have to.
After fumbling for a minute or two, I told my hairdresser, “Oh, you’ll figure it out. You’ll be able to tell if anything’s not quite right. Don’t worry.”
Then I held my magazine aloft and simply insisted she agree that the outside of Will and Jada’s house was as horrendous as the inside.
That was a much easier point to sell.