I mustered up every ounce of energy I had, fueled by my morning coffee. “We are going to go swimming after school today!” I declared.
Since little L’s diagnosis, we have been working with him on using ear muffs to block out sounds that seem to bother him and set him into overload mode. We set off into the pool area, earmuffs on L, baby tucked under my arm, big A skipping off with her friends to swim and slide and play. I felt proud as I looked at little L, thinking of how far he’s come. A dear friend of ours was there too, adding to that feeling of “this is ok! and fun! we can do this!”
Then I started to notice the other parents in the pool near us. Some of them went about chasing their toddlers just as I was, and occasionally we would catch each other’s eyes and smile. Some of them would stare at us, and when I tried to make eye contact, they would quickly turn away.
And then there was the boy who Liam tried to play with. “C’won, friend!” he said, motioning towards the slide he was hanging around next to. The boy’s dad took a look at L, frowned at me, scooped up his toddler, and whisked him away to the opposite side of the pool. L was oblivious, and I was surprised. Suddenly, with those earmuffs on, Liam’s actions just looked…autistic. I caught myself seeing the hand flapping, the awkward body positions, the…everything. Instead of my son playing and exploring in his own way, for a split second, I saw something else. Whatever that father had seen, I saw it. “Secret’s out now, I guess…” I thought to myself. Those earmuffs were like a new kind of scarlet letter – a big fat label on our son.
Wait right there.
We haven’t been keeping a secret that our son experiences the world differently than others. We’ve sought out support as we have struggled and worried and wondered, and we are at the threshold of a long journey with our son. So that’s not the secret that the outside world is just now seeing.
Do you want to know The Secret?
The secret is that he’s loving and loyal and gives the best hugs you’ve ever had. The secret is that he’s incredibly intelligent and his observations about the world amaze us every day – things that I now know will never show up on a standardized test or a checklist administered by a teacher or doctor or therapist. The secret is the pure joy he experiences in all his loud, unchecked emotions when we sees one of his favorite things or favorite people. The secret is his tenacity in teaching himself to tolerate more and more of the things that bother him, in his own time, at his own pace.
The best secret about L, or any of our children, are all the things that we as parents get to experience and witness before anyone else does. The secret is who he really is that sometimes the autism distracts us from. And our gift to the world someday will be the releasing of his gifts, of this precious secret, to make the world a little bit brighter.
And whenever he needs them, he’s wearing those earmuffs out in public, and I will be his proud mama standing by, choosing to see him as I know he really is.