My youngest son, Luke, has autism, and while his smile lights up the whole block and I won't trade him in for a million bucks, he often takes up all my energy and then some. We call him our little destroyer because he is always on the go and usually getting into trouble.
Yet, I would not have guessed how much he would help me grow as a person.
I've actually learned to be more patient (amazingly, some would say). Before having my wonderful, smiley, difficult, stubborn 7-year-old, I was a hothead. Not as much anymore. So many small things bugged me that now I wonder why I wasted any of my energy on them.
Plus, I had misconceptions about people with special needs.
There's a whole special needs world out there that I'm ashamed to say I didn't think much about before having Luke. Or when I did think about them, I had preconceived notions that were just plain wrong. Before having Luke, I remember seeing a mom holding a baby with Down syndrome and thinking, "Oh, how sad for her." Shame on me. Now I'd think how special the baby is and wonder what wonderful lessons she will teach her mom and others.
Luke also has shot my stereotypes about what it means to be smart out of the mucky water. While it's much easier to see that my older son, Brandon, 12, is smart because he can tell me all the wonderful, wacky things that go through his brain, what about Lukey and others like him?
It was heartbreaking when Luke began losing his speech. Ever since he was about 3 ½, we only hear from him on rare occasions. So if he can't communicate, wouldn't that mean he doesn't have much going on in his mind? Or that he can't understand much?
That's what I assumed before, but now I know better.
Luke's current home therapists, Lizz and Jessie, who work for Autism Home Support Services, both agree that in the brain department he's got a lot going on, so why was I so quick to judge? Recently he mastered all the letters of the alphabet in his home behavioral (ABA) therapy program. This means that when three letters are put in front of him and he's asked "Where's D?" he picks up that letter. This is so exciting to me. Since being at his new school, Giant Steps in Lisle, he has made progress in so many other ways as well.
He understands much more then he can express. For example, if I tell him we are going to go get ice cream at Batavia Creamery, he gets a huge grin on his face and runs to the door. And no, he DOES NOT like taking time to get shoes on.
Recently we were on a walk and were holding hands. While I thought we were heading toward the park a block away from home, Luke had other ideas and kept us moving in a different direction. When we got close to another park about a mile away, he let go of my hand and took off running. He was showing me that this was where he wanted to go. After he played for 20 minutes or so, he took my hand again and we headed home.
A former therapist, Ana, told me once: "Our little Luke is a special smart boy. He may not speak much but he does understand everything around him and everything we say."
After seeing the HBO movie "Temple Grandin," I pray one day he'll be able to tell us all the thoughts and ideas he has going on in his mind. The main character in the movie has autism, went on to get a Ph.D., revolutionized how cattle are treated and became a professor and author.
I'm so grateful for how much Luke is teaching me. He's helping me to grow as a person and be more open and loving to all types of people. He's teaching me to be more patient. And God only knows what else he will teach me-and others-as time goes on.
Deborah Meyer Abbs lives in the far west suburbs of Chicago with her husband, two sons and one very yappy dog. When she's not otherwise occupied, you may find her playing tennis or with her nose in a book.