David Mitchell on His Son’s Autism
So. The child psychologist across the desk has just told you that your three-year-old is “presenting behaviour consistent with that of an individual on the autistic spectrum”. You feel trepidation, sure, a foreboding that your life as a parent is going to be much tougher than the one you signed up for, but also a dash of validation. At least you now have a 10-page report to show to friends and relatives who have been insisting that boys are slower than girls, or that late language is to be expected in a bilingual household, or that you were just the same at that age. It’s a relief that your child’s lack of eye contact, speech and interest in picture books now has a reason and a name. You send some generic emails to people who ought to know first containing the words “by the way”, “looks like”, “has autism”, “but don’t worry” and “confirmed what we thought anyway”. The replies come quickly but read awkwardly: condolences are inappropriate in the absence of a corpse, and there aren’t any So Sorry Your Offspring Has Turned Out Autistic e-cards. People send newspaper cuttings about autism, too – about how horse-riding and shamans in Mongolia helped one kid, about a famous writer whose son has autism and is doing fine, about a breakthrough diet based on hemp and acacia berries. The clippings go in the compost.
This is a tremendously meaningful piece for me, having experienced a lot of the same things Mitchell has (sounds like his son is higher on the spectrum than mine is, but the process, realizations, frustrations and minor miracles are all very familiar) and never quite found the right way to discuss. Most awkwardly, the bit about “there’s no sorry your son has autism” e-card, that kind of odd way people console you like someone has been hit by a car, when in actuality there is so much joy and happiness along with every autistic child. I’ve always bristled at this notion that it’s some disease (it’s a developmental disorder, not a disease, btw) that parents should basically commit suicide over. The truth is much more nuanced. Yes, there are days when the scheduling, therapy, screaming or head banging, teacher’s notes and conferences, sadness and overwhelming feeling of helplessness crush you. And sure, there are days when you feel sorry for yourself. But it’s not about us. It’s about them. And they will surprise you, believe me. And that process is so incredible, every victory along the way is so magical, it makes the rest of it seems like a qualifying course you’d beg to be on. I wouldn’t trade my experiences for anything, I wouldn’t change my child one bit, I wouldn’t look longingly at some other child with ‘no issues’ … I’m too proud of him, too in love with all the things that make him special.
Anyway, many thanks to Mitchell for writing this. And many thanks to my son for teaching me these lessons over and over again.