My beautiful 13-year-old son Leo is on the autism spectrum. Like millions of other families, we have experienced a full range of emotions, challenges, heartbreaks and triumphs since his diagnosis, just before his third birthday.
Autism is a developmental, neurological disorder that manifests through a spectrum of behaviors and traits—hence the “autism spectrum.” Our son would be considered “high functioning,” which is a label I find distasteful because of the way it characterizes him as a human being. This goes to the heart of our life with a child on the spectrum. Every child with autism is impacted differently. In our case, our son is exceptionally bright, articulate, vibrant, joyful and healthy. Some of this is his natural temperament, and some is the result of years of work on his part.
For instance, our son did not have language—at least in the traditional sense of conversation—until he was close to four years old. He had to be taught how to speak. This, despite the fact that he had taught himself the alphabet (forward and backward!) before he was two years old and filling the playground with letters and words, written in chalk, long before he was three, in addition to sight-reading words while sitting in the car and riding past various street signs. But speech came only through intensive therapy.
To this day, our son’s greatest challenges are in the area of social development and peer interactions. Here, too, he needs to be taught how to have a conversation with friends from school. We are fortunate that Leo attends a remarkable private school for children with autism, where the entire environment is designed to meet his needs. Every Wednesday afternoon, Leo attends “conversation club,” where he and his classmates literally practice how to have a meaningful interaction with a peer, finding common interests, learning social cues and discovering the blessings of friendship. But again, progress here is slow and requires a lot of work.
With all of the support and therapies we have provided to our son, our greatest hope is that he can develop to his full potential and become a happy and well-adjusted adult. We continually ask ourselves: Will he be able to go to college? Will he ever live independently? Will he ever have real friendships, a career, a romantic relationship? So many of the life milestones that most families take for granted, for us are existential questions and continual sources of anxiety and worry.
I share this as background because I believe it is important for people and families who are not impacted by autism to understand what it’s like for those of us with children on the spectrum. Today, 1 in 55 children is on the autism spectrum. This means there are millions of people and families who are living with autism spectrum disorder. We are not seeking anyone’s sympathy—merely empathy and sensitivity to our reality. Most importantly, it is my fervent hope that our communities will begin to see people on the autism spectrum as different, not less and, in the spirit of creating a more fair and inclusive society, we embrace these differences without fear or judgment and develop opportunities for individuals with autism to be accepted, not ostracized.
In this Autism Awareness Month, let us all look at each other and see our common humanity. We are all different…not less.