A Birthday Wish
by Jennifer Overton
This piece was originally broadcast on
CBC Radio This Morning: First
Last night I had a dream. I dreamed I was
driving along a winding coastal
road. All of a sudden a beautiful boy dressed in black and carrying a
violin case crossed the road in front of me, causing me to stop. I asked
him where he was going, and if I could give him a lift. He recited his
address, an address I'd never heard, and got in the back seat. I looked in
the rearview mirror and a wave of panic rose in me at the sight of his
composed angelic face, staring straight ahead. In spite of my unease, I
knew that I had to help him find his way home. I began driving. Searching.
I woke up, my heart racing.
My son. My beautiful son:
Tomorrow is your fifth birthday. My big
boy. My child. Five years old!
Dad and I are so very proud of you. We are madly in love with you, and we
wouldn't want you to be any different than you are. You are one terrific
kid. Very special. And it was exactly one year ago today that you were
Autistic. Autism. That word still kicks me right in the stomach. It
knocks the wind out of me as much as it did the first time I heard it a
year ago, in the cold blunt way we were told of your disorder. "Yup, it's
Autism, and it's never going to go away." I remember feeling like all my
blood had left my body. And I remember hearing the cold October rain
slapping the window of the white, sterile psychologist's office. It's one
thing to harbour nagging suspicions; it's quite another to hear the word
AUTISM from the mouth of a professional, and to see it in black and white.
No longer deniable. Inescapable. Lifelong.
As much as we love you, it's been a very difficult
year for me and Dad. Who
can prepare for such a thing? It has been a year filled with tears, grief,
numbness, panic, desperation, fear, love, determination, and anger. A lot
of anger. Anger at a family doctor who repeatedly dismissed my concerns
about your development; anger at a medical system that put us on fourteen
month long waiting lists, and after diagnosing you, ushered us out the door
with nothing more than a wave and a "good luck"; anger that your
neurological disorder is shrouded in mystery and stigma and the medical
community offers no treatment.
It has been a year filled with tears, grief, numbness, panic, desperation,
I'm angry that I had to spend months reading, researching, desperately
looking for information on how to help you with NO ONE to guide me; I wish
we lived closer to my family; I wish there was something or someone to
blame for this; I feel anger toward friends who have effortlessly
developing children and still dare to complain; I'm angry at having been
given this huge responsibility!; Angry because I can never rest!; and
yes, I'm angry at you for not giving me back things like hugs and kisses-
my dear, it's very hard to keep giving when I don't get a lot back in
return. Please try to understand. I know you can't help it, but that
doesn't make it easier.
But mostly, I'm angry at myself. Angry and
guilty for not having
recognised the signs earlier, because early diagnosis and intervention have
proven to increase chances of full integration into society. I wish I
hadn't hushed my concerns. I'm sorry. I'm so sorry. For not listening to
myself. And for not listening to what you were telling me. And when you
were diagnosed, I'm sorry for being sad. I want you to know that I am not
sad about you, or that you are my son. Never. It's the world: I'm worried
about you in this world.
Autism. It conjures images of a solitary,
mute, rocking child. That is
not you; it never was. But when I think back, and look at your baby book,
I recognise what I now know to be the early signs. You
screamed at the sound of tin foil being ripped. You stiffened when I held
you. Your eye contact was not good. Instead of pushing toy cars around
the living room, you turned them over and spun the wheels.
Numbers, letters, and shapes were your favourite
playthings. At barely two
years of age you pointed to a small eight-sided window and said, "octagon."
Before the age of three you were spelling words with blocks. I recall
being in the car and hearing you mutter, "three, one, eighteen. That spells
car." It took me a while to figure out that what you had done was assign
the letters of the alphabet numbers in your head, and were spelling words
with the assigned numbers.
And your memory. Uncanny. Eerie. You
sing songs after hearing them once.
You remember where you dropped an elastic three years ago. You remember
the minutest detail, and forget nothing.
And yet you show little interest in playing with
other children. Kids are
loud; they move around a lot; they're unpredictable. Not only
(My Son, continued from p11)
must it be an assault to your oversensitive
senses, but you don't know the
rules to that game; the steps to that dance. You don't know how to make a
friend. You don't know how to play.
Sometimes your literal mind offers up funny,
poetic insights. "Mom, the
scissors are clapping." "Mom, can you put your headache away?" Birds
dance in the air, tummies cry, and "the gate is broke -- it has no money in
Dad and I celebrate your uniqueness. But
will the world? Will the kids in
school call you a computer with no feelings? A robot, to be turned on in
the morning and off at night? Will you ever be invited to a sleepover?
Will you learn to be a friend? Will you ever hug me and say, "I love you
Mom." On good days I have faith that the world will be gentle. On bad
days I just want to hold you in my arms and shelter you. My mysterious
child in black, what is the road you're walking down? And where are you
Tomorrow you turn five. We are so very proud of
you. You are working hard
to learn the life skills you are going to need. We love you. And we will
do everything in our power to help you reach your full potential and be the
happiest person you can be. And while we're busy teaching you the ways of
this world, you can teach us a lesson or two about love, patience,
commitment, and beauty. OK?
Happy Birthday son. And thanks for choosing our road to walk across.
Jennifer Overton is a Halifax actor and
writer. She also teaches Drama at
Mount Saint Vincent University. She is the proud mother of a five year old
autistic spectrum hyperlexic child.