The doctor had many nice things to say about our son. He was a pleasure to work with. He was cooperative and patient. He had a sense of humor. He worked hard and without complaint. For seven hours, she observed him perform tasks, take tests, and stare at screens. She interviewed him. He assessed himself with a number two pencil, blacking out little ovals that best fit the answer to questions like, “I am a leader” or “I hurt animals.”
Never. Rarely. Sometimes. Frequently.
The doctor added information gleaned from two of his teachers and from us. A diagnosis, reached.
Our son has autism. Or, should I write our son is autistic? Is it more correct to state something like our son has an autism spectrum disorder? That seems long and oddly prissy.
I don’t know. I’m new to this. So is he.
He’s not new to feeling what he feels, or seeing the world in the way he sees it. That’s been going on since his little days, apparently. He’s high-functioning, very bright, and has no trouble with thinking skills. I type that, but I read somewhere autistic people don’t like labels like “high-functioning” so I’m not sure how to describe him a manner that is deemed correct. He does well until other people show up and then (insert needle-scratching off record sound).
The social piece isn’t there. He doesn’t understand facial expressions, tone of voice, body language, or intentions. On the bell-curve of social intelligence, he was on the left edge of the bottom of where the bell begins. We knew he had trouble making friends. We didn’t know how poorly he understands anyone—-including us. His intelligence compensated for a lot and he learned to cultivate an attitude of not seeming to care if he had friends or not.
Oh my God.
The guilt is unreal.
It took suicidal ideation and inpatient hospitalization to get us here. Two psychiatrists said, “He’s quirky. Ever thought of having him tested?”
We had him tested.
Now we know.
Most importantly, he knows.
Our son is autistic.
Our son has autism.
Our son has an autism spectrum disorder.
Autism has our son.
Autistically-oriented, our son is.
He’s seventeen years old. That’s late for a diagnosis, which also leads to an odd loneliness. Because he’s nearly an adult, I don’t have the right to make big announcements at Facebook or tell friendly acquaintances over coffee. He doesn’t want anyone other than his doctors and therapist to know. He says he isn’t ashamed or embarrassed, but that it’s private and I respect that.
I also think it’s smart to stay quiet about it because of future education and employment opportunities. It could affect future relationships, too. If we sling together “Autism” and his name, discrimination is more likely.
My dad once told me when he was a kid, he was obsessed with vacuum cleaners. He would go to appliance stores and visit the vacuums. He learned as much as he could about them. My dad created a scrapbook of vacuum pictures he cut out of catalogs and the newspaper. When he told me this story, I was delighted by the vision of my little dad, with his thick glasses and deep dimples, falling asleep at night dreaming of canisters and hoses.
My dad was an alcoholic. He had been sober for twenty years when he died last summer. Now, in light of my son’s diagnosis, I wonder what he was pressing down and pushing away with alcohol. My son’s diagnosis makes me feel more tender toward my dad.
I forgave him in my heart a long time ago. I forgave him verbally before he died. There are no regrets.
I see my dad in a new light nine months after his death. I think of stories he told, quirks he had. He talked to himself a lot—even sober. He was hilariously funny—even sober. He was a creature of habit. He hated crowds, long lines, loud noises. He didn’t have close friends, but he was tremendously close to his family.
It’s ridiculous speculation born from a desire to have answers and draw connections. I tunnel through memories. I fill in blanks and push pins into moments. I’m suddenly a forensic psychologist, historian, time traveler. I wrap a red string around one pin, stretch it to another, and then to another. A picture emerges of two men. We are beyond the reach of proof or science, settled squarely in the lap of speculation, but here I go.
My son would have not only loved his grandpa’s vacuum cleaner scrapbook, he would have understood and contributed clippings.