When my sister and her daughters were visiting us in Costa Rica, I got to take care of my almost-two-year-old niece, Julie, for a half-day. My sister, her older daughter, my brother, and Martin were taking a long canopy tour. We dropped them off at 1:30 pm. I carried little Julie as she waved bye to the canopy-tour crew, then strapped her into her car seat and drove to our local supermarket, a noisy cement-floored warehouse kind of place. Julie let me set her in the grocery cart’s child seat and “helped” me shop. I handed her boxed or bagged items, which she clutched (sometimes gnawed) until she tired of them, then tossed into the cart and stretched her arms out to ask me for something new. I saw a yogurt drink my sister gives Julie, so I bought one and letter her have it on the way home. She and I laughed together when we arrived home and I discovered most of the yogurt drink on her shirt.
I didn’t want to rummage through my sister’s suitcases to find a clean shirt, so I let Julie run around shirtless. Julie seemed to do only charming things. As I used the food processor to julienne vegetables for an Asian chopped salad, she pushed a cardboard box around the floor like a train. She put items in the box and unloaded them elsewhere in the house. Whenever I announced I was putting a new vegetable into the food processor, she marched into the kitchen and demanded a sample. We went out back to swing in the hammock and dip our feet in the pool. I put a motorcycle helmet on Julie, sat her on the rugged ATV I kept for short trips through the jungle, and took photos to send her (mildly overprotective) father back in the States, to freak him out. Julie was a good sport, smiling and posing. When, after four hours of fun, it came time to pick up the canopy-tour crew, I put one of Martin’s t-shirts on Julie. It was of course wildly oversized, like a dress that brushed the floor as she tried to walk. Julie delighted in this. She giggled and danced as she lifted the shirt to her knees.
I’ve written before about the fact that I will never parent a typically developing child through the earliest years. Spending the afternoon with Julie shifted made me think less about my own loss and more about Martin’s. As I watched Julie explore her world, learn from touch, and interact with and imitate me, I grieved for Martin. He was just about turning two when Adrian and I finally realized (first-time parents!) that he was not progressing on the same track as his peers. Martin did not investigate; he stimmed by pushing a car back and forth. I did not get to prepare dinner while Martin played train with a box and stopped by the kitchen out of curiosity; if I needed to occupy him, I pulled the upright vacuum to the center of the living room. Honestly. The way to occupy Martin for an hour was to let him stare at the vacuum from different angles. Martin did not delight in new experiences, or play with me; he screamed with terror when he transitioned activities, and bolted from my grasp.
Even today, Martin cannot smile intentionally for a photograph. Instead, he grimaces and presses his tongue against his front teeth. When we try to practice for photographs, he says, “Smiling is hard. Do all kids have trouble smiling?”
Months ago, I had this exchange with a friend whose son is recovering from ASD and whose daughter, her younger child, is typically developing. They live in another country, so we don’t see each other much. She wrote of her experience parenting her daughter:
Neurotypical development is mind blowing—the kids learn all the time & all on their own at a rapid pace
Parents do zilch compared to what we do for our ASD kids
[My daughter] thinks & speaks in 2 languages, knows so many songs & rhymes, colors, etc.
Vocabulary, questions, observations
I didn’t respond. When my friend prodded me, weeks later, I wrote:
I have been meaning for a while to respond to your last set of messages. Honestly, they got me down a little bit. Martin is still not as far along as [my friend’s recovering son], but in many areas it feels like we are getting so close to typical, and I have faith that we will be there eventually. It is difficult to hear about these differences between neurotypical kids and ours, because it makes me feel that no matter how successful recovery is, there may always be differences, simply based on the developmental milestones that were lost along the way
And of course I want to believe that once he is fully recovered, it will not be evident that so much of his childhood was spent recovering from this disorder
[ . . . ]
I think what is tough for me is the idea that other children can be constantly learning. I worry that they will outpace him
It is heart-rending to watch the [NT] language acquisition, social & attention
Just like a button is always on
By listening to me talking on the phone she will guess who I am talking to and contribute to the call
It seems to flow without effort
Even making puzzles etc., learns by watching the other kid
I get it! That’s the type of stuff that makes me feel sad
I get it—though both are mine I feel sad a lot for [the older]
That’s it. I feel sad. Martin has missed so much. He’s already 10 and, even as he becomes ever-more typical, has missed the chance to experience the world with a toddler’s wonder. To learn simply by playing, as learning should occur.
For both of us, some pieces will remain missing.