My oldest son looks upset this morning. Concerned, I ask him what’s wrong. "I had a bad dream," he mutters.
"Oh," I say, ruffling his hair.
His eyes narrow accusingly. "I dreamed you sold me to Target!"
It’s not every day a mother is accused of selling her child to a corporation and it’s only one of a series of amusing remarks my oldest son makes. He has Asperger’s syndrome, and most Aspies have a spectacular sense of humor. Not everyone gets his humor, but the same could be said of his mom’s jokes.
He was a smiley, cheerful baby who did not babble or coo. My sisters called him "Frog," after the Warner Brothers Michigan J. Frog, who’d sing "Hello my baby, hello my honey, hello my raggg-time dollll!" to one guy, then fall silent for everyone else. My son would make a sound once, then be quiet. Before he was 18 months old, I was consulting doctors, clinics and specialists, wringing my hands. What had I done wrong?
Diagnosed with speech apraxia, we taught him sign language first. That summer, after the Fourth of July fireworks stopped, we watched our little guy stand and hand-sign "MORE" at the night sky.
Around that time, I worked on a corporate assignment with another mom who owned a small business. Ambitious, a former cheerleader and MBAer, she was a go-getter. Her daughter’s photo was in a "Beautiful Baby" calendar. Her son was in gifted kindergarten. Her husband was handsome and dashing.
One afternoon, I went to her home to finish a corporate assignment, adjusting PowerPoint slides. I had to take my son. He was severely speech-delayed but made up for it with his 100-meter dash and pole-vaulting skills. As I worked on my laptop, my eyes would flick over in concern. Would he break one of her children’s awards?
Chasing him, I could see her becoming exasperated. I tried sitting him in my lap, but ended up with "JKJKJKJK" typed on the slide.
"Whew," she said. "I’m so lucky, Cheryl. I don’t know what I’d do if I had a special needs kid like you."
Other women would have cursed, tackled her to the Elmo play mat and wrestled out an apology. Or challenged her to a formula squirting duel. Shocked, speechless, all I could do was sweep him into my arms and dash out the door. The tears flowed freely once I was on the expressway.
She was lucky? I was the lucky one. I loved every molecule in that toddler body. Why didn’t I scream that out loud? My online mom friends were livid. I should have told her off.
But mean’s not my style.
In the end, I sent her a letter, along with Welcome to Holland, by Sesame Street writer Emily Perl Kingsley. Kingsley wrote about her son who has Down syndrome. In the classic essay, she makes the analogy of travelers expecting to go to Italy, (having a typical kid). Instead, a parent ends up in Holland.
"So you must go out and buy new guide books," says Kingsley in her exquisite essay. "And you must learn a whole new language. And you will meet a whole new group of people you would never have met."
Many Aspie parents share the same tales. Always investigating therapies, joining online support groups. Usually for an Aspie, there aren’t a lot of birthday party invitations. I’d pick up my younger son at preschool and see my older son playing alone at recess. We were fortunate, though. My son had excellent teachers and many classmates accepted his quirks.
What the past 12 years have taught me is that even those with good intentions can make insensitive remarks. All I can do is maybe help enlighten them. An Asperger’s diagnosis isn’t the end of the world. It’s the beginning of a one-of-a-kind journey, the road less traveled. My son is a gift, smart and inquisitive. He’s a great brother, a loyal friend, an enthusiastic, if occasionally distracted, student. I can only hope I’m up to the task of being a good mom to him.
Do I worry? Of course. Has it been easy? Is parenting ever easy?
Aside from the fact that my husband’s snoring can be heard all the way to Wisconsin, I’m pretty much the luckiest woman on the planet.
Chicago Special Parent, our empowerment guide for parents with children with special needs, is now available in an electronic version online at ChicagoSpecialParent.com. It includes local resources for Autism Spectrum Disorders.
Cheryl O’Donovan is a humor writer and mom living in Schaumburg.