“Three. Two. One. Boost ignition and – lift off.”
The rumbling groan of rocket engines filled my living room and the cardboard spaceship in the corner shook.
Inside, my 5-year-old son, Chuck, sat steely-eyed and ready as he mimicked the sounds of a space launch. He was dressed, as usual, in an astronaut helmet and matching orange jumpsuit complete with real NASA patches.
“Where you headed today?” I asked from my seat on the couch.
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His voice was serious when he answered. “First, moon. Then, Mars.”
I smiled as he went back to his play, knowing that was as much as I’d get out of him in the middle of his adventure.
My son playing – actually playing – is new enough that it makes my heart fill like there’s a helium balloon inside. There’s no one word to describe it; it’s pride, relief and unabashed glee all mixed up together.
He didn’t always know how to play. The fact that he can now is gloriously, miraculously unexpected.
He didn’t always talk, either. Or understand facial expressions, or know how to hold a crayon, or know how to cope with the whine of an air conditioner. All the things most of us just sort of figure out, he had to painstakingly learn from teachers and therapists.
My son is a bouncing, charming, laughing little boy who loves with the unmitigated force of a linebacker. He splashes in mud puddles, makes funny faces and lives to tease his sisters with spiders and tadpoles.
He’s also autistic.
Had I known more about autism, I think I’d have recognized it earlier. The signals were all there from the beginning – the speech delay, the inarticulate moaning, the arm flapping hop-step he does when he’s happy.
He could name every planet in our solar system and tell you what each one was like before he could respond to his name. He could tell me the difference between a meteorite, asteroid and comet before he could tell me what he wanted for lunch.
When he still wasn’t progressing typically by age 3, our pediatrician recommended screening him for learning disabilities. I was terrified, but I was also desperate. When it came to connecting with my kid, all my instincts were wrong.
Kisses hurt. Hugs were OK, but only sometimes. A conversation was comically out of reach.
I’ve always loved him. But I didn’t know him. I wanted to know my son.
After seven months of doctor’s visits, a panel of specialists came back with their verdict, and I hated every one of them for it.
Of course I’d known a diagnosable problem was possible. Getting a diagnosis and getting help was the whole point.
But as I sat across the conference table from a full lineup of child psychologists and behaviorists and doctors, all agreeing something was wrong and slapping a label on my son – my sweet little boy – I hated them. I listened to them talk and watched them brush away my dreams for his future college and career and family like they were crumbs on the table, and I hated them. I hated them all.
I shut my eyes and took a breath. Then I dug in.
The next year was a scatter shot of frenzied learning. I read every book about autism, watched every Temple Grandin documentary, went down every Reddit rabbit hole.
I learned all the lingo: stimming, over stimulation, self-harm, IEP.
I learned to make social stories, excruciatingly specific picture guides, for everything we do: Pick up the toothpaste. Screw open the lid. Put the lid down. Pick up your toothbrush.
I learned that what I’d hoped was a phase of my son rarely sleeping was actually common for an autistic person’s entire life, with about 80 percent never sleeping well. I learned to make do with two or three hours a night. When I try to sleep more than that, my son tends to break out of all our fancy childproof locks and wander the neighborhood looking at stars.
I learned I’d rather be judged in the grocery store as a bad mom than him be judged as a bad kid, and started taking all the rude comments and glares on myself. I learned to pretend I don’t mind.
I learned that when my usually witty, happy son goes into full meltdown, throwing himself into walls or smashing his head hard against the wood floor, if I tackle him and hold him tight against my chest, I can take the brunt of the blows. I’d rather get a black eye or a fat lip than him get hurt.
And somewhere in the middle of it all, I learned how hard he’s trying to meet me halfway.
He kisses my elbow each morning before he flaps off to school, knowing I like kisses even if he doesn’t. He runs his fingers over my hair when I read his favorite stories or rests his fingers on my lips to feel how they move when I talk. He draws me pictures of his favorite constellations.
Once, when another child jokingly called me a “poo-poo head,” he came out of his own world long enough to throw up his hand and yell, “Stop!” Then he pointed at me and said fiercely, “You a princess.”
I learned there’s almost nothing I wouldn’t do for a kid like that.
So I keep on learning. For him.
As I watched him play astronaut in our living room, moaning his autistic moan and crossing his eyes to blur the bright window light, I realized what I want to learn most is how to teach him it’s OK to keep on being unabashedly himself.
He will always think differently and act differently because his mind works differently, and I refuse to try and “fix” that.
It’s not my job to force him into the same mold as everyone else. It’s my job to teach him what he needs to know so that when he breaks that mold, (and he will), he can do it with all the stout-hearted joy and brilliance I know is in him.
He landed his pretend spaceship and slowly emerged, looking out over the alien Martian landscape of couch pillows and dining room chairs with wonder written all over his face.
“Hey pal,” I said as he started a slow-moving spacewalk. “Can I play?”
“No,” he said without hesitation. “Mama’s not an astronaut.”
“Why not?” I asked, a little hurt. “Can’t I go to Mars, too?”
“No.” His voice was kind but firm. “Mama builds the rocket.”
I’m trying, big guy. That’s precisely what I’m trying to do.
Autumn Linford is a correspondent for The News & Observer. Email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.