Friends who know I have a son with autism mean well, but sometimes, even in their effort to be supportive, they say the wrong thing.
Here is the statement I hate most:
“All kids do that.”
Now, if you’re a friend of mine, and you’ve ever said about Martin, “All kids do that,” please do not worry. I know your heart is in the right place. I know you want to help. And this post is not directed at you, or at anyone in particular. Believe me, I’ve heard, “All kids do that,” from almost everyone within the limited circle that knows about Martin’s diagnosis.
I know from reading other blogs that I’m not the only parent who detests “All kids do that.” When someone says, “All kids do that,” then regardless of what that person means to convey, I hear one of two things:
1. “I know Martin has autism and all, but don’t you think you’re going overboard? Maybe you’re a little hysterical about the whole thing, or you like to complain?”
2. “I have absolutely no inkling about the realities of your daily life with Martin.”
Yes, I know that even neurotypical kids “have a favorite color.” On the other hand, if you board a subway and find that all the yellow seats are taken, can you expect your neurotypical kid to panic and run out the closing subway doors, without a care whether you are following? If your kid says the moon on his pajama top is yellow, and you suggest it might look more blue, do you assume bedtime will be delayed an hour while he howls inconsolably? Have you ever had to purchase napkins in different colors so that your family could practice sharing the yellows without a meltdown?
And I know that even neurotypical kids “tend to repeat themselves.” On the other hand, unless you live with autism, I am guessing that your kid has never lost awareness and stared into the distance, uttering some combination of words scores of times. I am guessing that your kid does not continue repeating even when he’s alone in a room, his words like a proverbial tree falling in the woods, and then falling again, and then again, and again. I am guessing that your kid’s brain does not get stuck in a groove so deep that he becomes physically unable to cease perseverating. There are times when Martin’s need to repeat himself—“Our President’s name is Obama. O-B-A-M-A. The last letter is A. Obama is the President. Do you know how to spell that? The last letter is A. Our President’s name is Obama. Do you know what our President’s name is? It’s Obama.”—reaches such intensity that, if I were to duct-tape shut his mouth, his arm or leg would have to flail in compensation until he could speak again.
(Don’t panic, dear readers. I’ve never tried any such thing. I just know it’s true.)
“All kids” do a lot of things. But they don’t do them like a kid on the spectrum does.
So what does help? What should someone say, if not “All kids do that”?
A friend of mine (let’s call him Ted) once lost several family members in a house fire. Ted and I lived more than a thousand miles apart at the time, so I wasn’t present for the immediate aftermath or the funeral. A few weeks later, when it was time for me to call, I asked another friend, Deb, what I should say to Ted. Deb is a minister, she’s wise, and her own father had died recently. She counseled (I’m paraphrasing):
“Say you’re sorry about the loss, and then talk about anything else. Follow his lead. When you’re grieving, distraction is a blessing.”
I called Ted and said I was so sorry for his loss and wished we lived closer together. He responded by asking how I was doing, and the conversation moved naturally to catching up on each other’s latest activities. We talked jobs, law (two attorneys, boring!), mutual acquaintances. Once, after a pause in the conversation, Ted said, “You know, they were so close to the door when they collapsed. It was the smoke. They almost made it out,” and I knew that Deb had been right. Ted’s mind was so consumed with loss that the twenty minutes we’d just spent talking about other topics were like a vacation for him. And immediately after saying, “They almost made it out,” Ted asked if I’d seen some movie over the summer. The house fire did not come up again.
When you encounter me, know that for at least 23 of the preceding 24 hours, I have had almost nothing on my mind except autism and recovery. I’ve been giving pills, cooking special foods, corresponding with parents on-line, reading about the latest treatments, cleaning air purifiers, mixing clay baths, filtering water, completing HANDLE exercises and concocting RDI games, fighting for a special-education placement, juggling therapy appointments, navigating social-work bureaucracy, keeping Martin’s doctor up to date, and worrying about what vaccinations are doing to our children.
You can ask me how Martin is doing. I will respond, “We have our ups and downs,” maybe add one or two recent achievements, and then move on. Here are suggested topics I would probably rather discuss than Martin’s autism:
• Why is it still winter at the end of April?
• Who is going to be the next mayor of New York City?
• WNYC reported that 70% of home sales in Brownstone Brooklyn are all-cash deals right now. Seriously, 70%?
• Is it okay to put a cat on Prozac?
You get the idea. There are a million things to talk about that are not autism.
And if you really, really want to talk about autism, say you support us. Adrian’s mother once set the gold standard in that regard. Adrian was visiting his country of origin and staying in the family home. One evening he and his parents and siblings crowded around a computer to Skype with me and Martin back here in the States. As it happened, that day Martin was at his worst. He would not sit with me or look at the computer. He failed to respond to any questions, or even acknowledge his father and grandparents and aunts and uncle on the screen. After 30 seconds I gave up and released Martin, who jogged around the room, yelling gibberish.
It was a painful moment for me, and though he didn’t say anything, I could tell it was painful for Adrian, too.
Evidently, so could Adrian’s mother.
After we finished with Skype, Adrian went out to dinner with friends. When he returned to the family home that evening, everyone else was in bed. On the kitchen counter was a note from his mother. Loosely translated:
“Martin will get better. I believe in what you’re doing. Love from Mamá.”
Next to the note was a plate with a cookie.
That’s all we really want, any of us, right?
A little faith, and a cookie.