Among other things, my son is 4, very tall, autistic, handsome, affectionate and nonverbal. His sweet smile and fierce hugs endear him to everyone he meets. His autism is a full-time job — most days he’s out the door by 9 in the morning and doesn’t get a break until after 4 p.m. I act as the dutiful shuttle bus driver for school and all of his therapy appointments.
As a result of this packed schedule, we frequently end up running errands while in transit from one place to another. Inevitably, the cashier or someone in line will comment about how quiet and well-behaved my son is. Often, it’s someone apologizing for their own child’s behavior while thinking I’m some kind of disciplinary super mom. They imagine a halo over my gorgeous blonde little boy’s head as he stands there silently, looking at the floor, holding my hand.
Occasionally, they try to talk to him but he’ll turn his head away. Then comes the comment, “Oh, he’s shy, huh?” Sometimes I say yes, because he can be. Sometimes I’ll point out that talking to strangers isn’t a good idea. Sometimes I offer a smile and remain as silent as my son. It isn’t that I’m embarrassed of him or his diagnosis. I try to think what my son would want — would he want all these people knowing? Would it make it better or would it just make him feel even more isolated and different? He offers no explanation so usually I don’t either.
There was one exchange, though, that I will never forget. We were at a packed grocery store right before Christmas. The bagger and cashier were complaining because their kids were going on and on about what they wanted for gifts and had no respect for the meaning of the holiday. I fought back tears as I put my items on the belt. My son was sitting in the cart, his eyes downcast to avoid the bright fluorescent lights. He had my phone and was listening to music to help drown out the overstimulating sounds of the conveyor belt and the beeping of the register. The cashier glanced at me, looking for some commiseration. I couldn’t meet her gaze. I felt embarrassed because I never have any idea what my son wants for Christmas. As with every other holiday and occasion, I have to guess. Sometimes I guess right and sometimes I don’t.
I wanted to tell them how lucky they were that they could hear their children’s voices. I wanted to remind them what a gift it is to be able to know, for certain, what their children need at any given time. For the ability to be told what their children like for dinner or what they wish for on their birthday. My body started to shake with all the unspoken words threatening to pour out of me. I wanted to tell them the greatest Christmas gift I could receive would be for my son to tell me that he loved me. I would give anything to know what he was hoping for on Christmas morning, so he could feel like a regular kid and get something he wanted. I said nothing because I knew telling them all this wouldn’t change anything, but after it was time to leave, I sat in my car and cried.
My son may never talk. I have made peace with that. However, I’m going to continue to find a way for him to communicate not just for his needs, but also his wants. Because every child deserves to receive a gift that they’ll love.