Adam finds me sometimes, just to talk about the things that excite him.
I’m one of the few with whom he’ll take that still awkward step, because he can appreciate the way that I know him, the way womb-forged bonds overcome every other kind of separation. I almost always know what Adam means to say before he says it, and there’s something so comforting about knowing you need not filter yourself with someone; that with them, it’s okay to fumble around and not be very good at expressing yourself.
I smile at my tender-reed son, who in any anxiety will always choose to be right by my side. If he and I can be so inseperable, is it any wonder he’s always been so close to God? Nothing can separate us from the love of the One who created our inmost beings, who saw our unformed bodies, who knows our words before they ever make it to our tongues. That passage means something different when you have a child who struggles hard to get words from his mind to his tongue. Even when I don’t know what Adam’s feeling, what he desperately wants to say, God always does.
God knows my heart too, even before I awkwardly try to express it, and the knowledge that He knows me so deeply—that he gets me, that I need not filter myself for him–should knit me so close that sometimes I find Him just to talk about what excites me.
“Birthday,” Adam says, bending in front of me in the laundry room, lifting a long, thin arm, reaching to flick my right ear with his fingers while I squeeze out a sopping shirt. 3 days until his birthday. The water trickles down over my hands and splatters into the utility sink, lightly tangy with the smell of a vinegar soak. I lob the shirt into the washing machine and grab a towel to dry my hands, turning to give my son my full attention. And suddenly I remember those verses about how God draws near to us when we pray; about how He’s mind-ful of us—David’s how can it be question, and I understand a tiny bit more. Most of the time, Adam uses words as a last resort (and isn’t this how I sometimes also use prayer, because I’m really a bit spiritually autistic), to convey something about his basic needs, especially if he’s hungry. So when my son makes the effort to find me, to venture into conversation, I stop what I’m doing and listen. He smiles at me, repeating that delicious word “birthday” and the date. His eyes glitter with anticipation.
“Yes. It is going to be your birthday. Are you excited?”
“Yes, excited,” he says, and the word lifts and then crashes into laughter, the way his words always do when he’s feeling happy.
I’m excited too, and a little shocked. Every time I look at him he seems another inch taller, and yet I still remember the feel of him in my arms, the way he’d lay his little chubby hand against my neck.
“So, what are you excited about?”
“Cupcakes,” he says, shifting from one foot to the other. I’ve always loved the way his body communicates through movement what he doesn’t quite know how to say. Enthusiasm animates his arms, lifts his hands, propels his legs. Really, he’s not so different than the rest of us. None of us feel completely successful with plain words. That’s why creativity and resourcefulness thrive; why everyone has an art.
“What kind of cupcakes?” I ask, touching his cheek with my hand.
He fumbles a moment with the question, and patiently I watch him reach for a word, discard it, and reach for another, like someone rifling through a mental closet for that one lost thing. Finally, he settles on what he can: a color. “Blue.”
“Okay, I can make blue cupcakes. But what flavor?”
He laughs, and I laugh. I think his smile is one of the most beautiful I’ve ever seen. “Uhh, how ’bout,” he says, “uhh, how ’bout…Let’s see. Uhh, how ’bout…” He spins in front of me, springs forward a few steps, then turns and walks back to me, reaching again to flick my ear with his fingers.
And I stand there blurry-eyed the way only an autism mom would, because he’s just shown me two important victories: he’s figured out that we use verbal clues to beg time for thinking, to indicate that we want a moment to answer; and he’s learned what some of those clues happen to be, words that up until this season would have been meaningless to him. He’s moving from labeling to conversation—that’s the next step. Only in a conversation does one need placeholders. I wait a bit before I speak–the key is to wait longer than I would in conversation with others–to honor his effort and to see if the words he wants are within reach today. They aren’t, but oh, how he tries, moving-giddy, rifling through that mental closet. Finally I reach in and hand them over, carefully. “Well, you could have chocolate cupcakes, or vanilla, or–”
“Chocolate,” he says, looking relieved. “I want chocolate cupcakes.”
“Awesome. What would you like to do for your birthday?” Do is a word over which Adam often still stumbles, because it’s highly unspecific, pointing in vague directions. Do could attach itself to almost anything. So often, I struggle with that word myself. What am I to do?
“No thank you,” he says, casting aside the question, probably partly because of its difficulty but especially because he isn’t quite finished discussing the party food. “May I have pizza and guacamole and chips, please,” he says, and the word please disintergrates into glee.
“Yes,” he says, laughing, and oh–that smile.
“Of course we can have pizza and guacamole and chips. What about presents?”
Again he twirls and sifts and fumbles, moving away from me and then coming back like an erratic boomerang. “Red.”
This makes me chuckle. At Christmas time, Adam asked for blue presents. My teenaged son loves Mozart, calculators, and lists of any kind. He has a crush on one of his beautiful teachers. And he gets specific about wrapping paper. Adam is uniquely, creatively both typical and wonderfully–so wonderfully—not. I cherish the things about my son that make him rare, the way I’m sure God treasures up the wildly eccentric parts of me, like a precious secret. “Well okay, but what should be inside them?”
“Music.” The word glides out, itself a part of a song. Of course. Music is the only gift Adam ever requests. He replays CDs until they break, repetitively rehearsing phrases, bridges, crescendos.
“Now that sounds like a fun birthday. Would you like to go somewhere? Ride bikes? Bowling?”
“Stay home,” Adam says, and the words tumble out silly and bubbling with laughter, incredulous, as though he cannot believe I would even suggest anything else. And then he whirls away from me and down the hall, with a jovial “oh” as he disappears into his room.
And all I can do is stand in the laundry room leaning against the utility sink, thinking with delight about the steps my son has taken lately not just to talk to me about his needs but to have conversations with me. I’m delighted, overjoyed! because a conversation is so much more than a litany of requests. Adam grows, and these days, I never know when he’ll appear and lean in front of me, catching my eyes with his own, offering me first a one-word door into his heart. Today, the topic was his birthday. Yesterday, it was our family vacation. And each time Adam makes the effort, he leaves me surprised over autism’s illusions; the way overengaged often can look so much like oblivious. Sometimes I’ll think my son completely distracted by a sensory quagmire he cannot prioritize, and he’ll communicate something somehow to let me know that not only is he very much aware of our lives together, he’s excited.
So, I lean against the utility sink and find my way to God, bending right in front of Him. Still smiling, I begin: Conversations! ….CONVERSATIONS?…and then Yes, I’m excited that my son wants to talk to me! I’m excited that you’ve given him “the want to” to try! And YES, I’m already looking forward to our next conversation. Could it be that maybe you’ll move him to tell me about something notices or loves to do or wishes he could try? and the rest, from me, is like one long, giddy, run-on sentence that sometimes crumbles into laughter.