Autism Acceptance: Difficult and Yet So Easy

How 31 years of autism parenting taught me what I already knew.

Psychology Today, March 18, 2021

Way back in 1991, when my autistic son Nat was 3, and he got his diagnosis of “Developmental Delay and Expressive Language Disorder with Autistic-Like Symptoms,” I was filled with fear because it felt like people were talking to me in Newspeak, a la the famous novel 1984. I also felt like people were lying to me, but in soft cottony whispers that stuffed up my ears. This diagnosis, this terrible thing they were saying about Nat. What did it mean? Did I no longer know who my son was?

I remember going on and on to my Dad, especially on those particularly golden days when Nat burst out with something beautiful, that showed me all that truly was going on inside him. The little teasing hints of color, like you get with the March crocuses, a flash of brilliant purple nearly invisible against the mat of muddy leaves. “They’re wrong,” I’d say to Dad. “I know they’re wrong. That is not who he is.” And because I did not understand the complex nature of autism I fought that designation. “Actually, I think he’s not autistic at all. He’s gifted.”

And my Dad, in his unflagging confidence and total delight with Nat, said: “You’re going to find he’s gifted.”

For years after that, I thought of those words, and choked a little on them. For Nat was deeply and thoroughly autistic, and to me, the worst had come true: very little verbal communication, much ugly stimming that was all too much like my beastly OCD, the emergence of nasty aggression, and fighting everything we wanted him to learn!

Except there would still be those glimpses of spring, those moments that took my breath away and thawed my scared, frozen hope. Like when he told his first joke, at age ten. Pointing at me, saying, “It’s Daddy! Yes!” grinning ear-to-ear. Or when he started talking to us about his fascination with danger: “Nat will jump off the building and head will bleed and bleed.” Or when he got his first medal in Special Olympics.

During all that time, and before, and since, Nat was just being Nat, which doesn’t really need any more explanation than that. And that is the simple truth: Nat is Nat. But it’s so easy to forget this beautiful thing.

Now, he’s 31 and sometimes I still lose my clarity about Nat. He goes through a tough period, where he’s hurting himself out of frustration, where we are walking around on tiptoe, where we are afraid of him. Afraid for him. But something always happens that then blows all that away, and this is the wonder of Nat and—dare I say it? The wonder of autism. Because as much as I have hated autism for all of the struggle it’s caused Nat, it is autism that infuses his self-expression. Autism gives him that particular, peculiar way of expressing himself, that odd turn of phrase, that naked innocence as well as his way-too-obvious attempts to lie.

Just this morning, Nat said, “Toofpaste.” And I knew that meant it was time to do some shopping—Nat’s inner calendar told him that. But when I said, “OK, let’s do a shopping list,” he right away said, “No shopping!” I’ve lived with Nat long enough to know that shopping is precisely what he wanted in that moment, but he wanted the idea to originate with me. In the past, he’d get really upset about this interaction. But now I know what to do: pretend I just thought of it. So I waited a beat and then said, “You know what? I need to buy a few things.” And all was well. That kind of understanding/acceptance is all it takes to make Nat supremely happy! His charming autistic predictability is what now makes him easy, a joy to be with. I think I know him now at last, 28 years after the terrible diagnosis days. He is easy to read. He is very opinionated—one might say controlling (and one would be so very right). He wears his everything on his sleeve. He does have developmental delays, an expressive language disorder and many features of autism. He also causes people to fall in love with him as soon as they get it. The delighted laughter of the people around him, the love that quickly fills up their hearts, the little gasping sob of joy he makes me feel. How many people do that on a regular basis?

You might say he is gifted.