I was pedaling hard up a hill today, listening to Layla. I reached the blissful pinnacle of the hill just as those first brightly colored piano chords struck, and the song shifted into Jim Gordon’s second part, so different from the first. Where the beginning verses of Layla — Clapton’s — are passionate, lusty, angry, frustrated, the second part is pure yearning. Maybe even a letting go, as those birds tweet twice at the very end.
The song shone in my ears and it tore my heart at its most tender spot, right where I keep Nat. There on my bike I wanted to cry, thinking about this morning, when I had told him about his autism. This morning, in the quiet fresh light of the early sun, I had suddenly realized that it was time. “Nat,” I began, “I want to tell you something important, about yourself.” His eyes were on mine, focused and interested. “You know, you have something called autism,” I said, slowly.
“Yes,” he said, listening.
“You probably hear a lot about autism. Bad things. But what I want you to know is, you are not bad at all. You are good. But autism is a disability.”
“So that means — a disability is something that makes things hard. You have a hard time talking. That is autism.” He waited for me to go on. “A lot of people have autism. I don’t have autism. Max doesn’t have autism, that’s why he can talk a lot.” I paused. “Your brain works differently because of autism, and makes it hard for you to talk. But you are doing so well with it! Your emailing is so great!” I was smiling. Ned was watching intently, I could tell from the corner of my eye, but I did not want to see what he thought. If he was skeptical, I did not want to know. I was not skeptical. I feel that Nat understands, and so now I was acting accordingly.
“I write a lot about you, to tell people about how much you’ve learned. They read my books because it makes them happy about their children. I teach them things about autism. Because you’ve done so great!”
He sat very still. “Yes,” he said. Did I see a flicker of something? Was he sad? Confused? Did he finally understand why life feels the way it does to him? Of course I don’t know. I felt I did the right thing.
But as Layla flew upward and my bike sped downward, I wondered if I had helped Nat or hurt him. It was so late in his life to tell him this, but it is only now that I feel he would understand. I believed that he probably wants to know why he is different from others, even if he does not articulate it that way. He needs to know that he is different, but not bad or inferior or broken. He needs to know how great a person he is, how bright and strong.
But did I convey that? Or did I just open a door to a dark and scary place for him? Or did only some of it get through? I know I’ll have to revisit this, often, to check in with him, make sure he is handling this news okay.
I believe people have the right to know important things about themselves, but they need to know them at the right time. Nat, with all of his growth this year, in spoken and written communication, seems to be ready for emotional growth. It is time he took his place in the world, as a man, and the best way to confront such a place is armed with self-awareness.
Still, my heart is hurting for him, because he is so new at all of this. He has awakened, but it is only 3am in his life. But just like any of my kids waking up scared, I’m here. Tweet, tweet.