Owen was two. He was speaking seventeen words. He told his dad he loved him. I barely could get him to say “mama”. Home with him every hour of the day and he tells his father, “I love you.” I was Barbara’s jealous resentment.
He rarely kissed. If he did it was without using his lips and involved dragging his face on you, if you were lucky. If you were unlucky, it was essentially face-butting you. It’s like his hugs, you took what was offered and didn’t quibble over the delivery. Sometimes it was a wonderfully timed hug with cooing and smiles that melted through your frustrations and brought tears; other times, it was a running hug at your crotch or a knee to your eye as you slept.
The hardest moments with affection are when he rejects you. He used to spurn his sister’s overtures and now he’s three and demands affection from her with a tackle. It hurts her but she understands as well as anyone can that it’s been hard earned. It’s baffling at any age let alone to a five year old now a six year old. One moment he’s hugging you, wanting to play chase, and then he’s hitting you? He approaches you for seemingly a hug, you respond with an embrace, only to be screamed at in revolt or have your ears boxed as he squeals in delight?
It reminds me of the well intentioned comments from people that are at a loss as to what to say when we share his autism diagnosis. Typically to explain an odd exchange or a turn in events that just occurred such as, but not limited to: him licking someone’s dog, headbutting someone’s dog, running up to stare at someone an inch from their face, stripping naked when he’s angry, laying down in the middle of any activity or area when he’s upset, stealing toy cars if they’re red, and so on.
“He looks so normal…”
“Well he’s two, my two year old does that too…”
“You’re so brave…”
“It could be A LOT worse…”
“It’ll get better…”
My favorite response was from an elderly man in our neighborhood once whose dog is routinely accosted by Owen. He always reassures me it’s ok and that his dog enjoys the attention. One day Owen was roughly hugging the dog when another dog owner stopped to chastise all of us out of “concern” for the dog. The owner of the dog nodded patiently, looked at Owen with a smile, looked at his dog, then at me, “It’s just not fair.” I smiled and nodded with a smile as well, we took our leave, and we walked in separate directions. I held it together until I had Owen down for a nap later that day.
I finally sat down to rest and shook with grief. It’s not fair to anyone and it’s not a matter of waiting for it to get better but for it to change for him. Because, yes, he is two and changing quickly like any other but not in the ways I hoped at times. It’s ugly to say and painful to feel. Because what’s truly unfair, what I hope that kind man meant, is that this world doesn’t accept our son at times. Then again, do any of us ever feel completely accepted? If we did, we wouldn’t discuss the concept and all of us would have equal rights. Nosy, judgmental neighbors would be considered odd and not us.
He’s three now. He’s teaching himself to read. He’s told me he loves me the one time. He calls me “mama” every day. He plays games with his sister, helps clean, follows directions about as often as his father and sister do. I’m amazed by his sudden growth and thankful for his newfound gentleness. We love his boundless joy and my heart swells when he hugs me and declares, “Happy.”
We finally had his speech evaluation today after months of waiting. I was nervous and frazzled by traffic and pulled at a door to the hospital that clearly said “PUSH”. He yelled from his stroller, straining against the straps, “Push!” I became frustrated.
“I will once I get this door -”
“ – PUSH!”
“ – Owen?! I’m trying – “
“ – PUSH!”
Just then an employee held the door open and I noticed the sign. Owen giggled at me. I silently wished for a cocktail and that he would nap early.
He has new words every day, he speaks to others, and he interacts with people but there’s issues we need expert advice on. Like how to get him to say “quack” instead of “cock”, and “fork” instead of “fuck”.
The therapist ushered us in and set out toys for him. We reviewed her questions and she then began to try to engage Owen in some word identification games. She held up a truck, he responded excitedly, “T’WUCK!”
“That’s right, Owen, great!”
He beamed at me with pride in himself as he cruised through at least twenty items and naming them, I returned his look, and a glint then entered his look as his chin tucked to the side. Oh, no…
She held up a car and began to ask a question. He grabbed it from her and yelled, “Q’AWK!”
I swallowed a laugh at her shock since it most definitely sounded like “cock”.
He smiled and said, “Duck!” He then threw the car over her shoulder, narrowly missing her ear. We all erupted in laughter.
Autism doesn’t mean you lack a sense of humor or a good throwing arm. It means sometimes your hugs are too rough, your love is misunderstood, and acceptance can be a battle of words that is hard won.