When My Son’s Friends Asked What’s ‘Wrong’ With His Uncle With Autism


Just over ten years ago we were visiting a family resort. My mom and I had gathered and corralled all four of my sons, along with my brother, to the resort swimming pool. With an ease we’ve mastered over time, Mom and I chatted while consistently counting heads, tossing playful banter at the boys and redirecting moods that could easily become meltdowns.

My brother Dar, who was about 21 at the time, loves water. He screams, he splashes, he sucks water in and spits it out, he jumps around and screams again.

My oldest son, who was about 10 years old at the time, loves making new friends. He invents creative games and gives random kids a role, he invites them to sleep over and builds blanket forts with two stories and a dance room, then makes more friends to play more roles.

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On this particular visit my brother was wildly happy. The acoustics at the indoor pool were his play thing, and he made strange sounds with wild abandon. While my oldest son swam nearby with new-found friends, Dar happily cleared out the hot tub.

Eventually, one of the kids my son was playing with asked with intense curiosity, pointing at my brother, “What’s wrong with him?”

My darling son look over at his uncle and shrugged. “Dunno,” was his bored response, “maybe he’s hungry.” And off they swam, question answered!

It’s not the questions we are asked about our autistic loved ones that matter most, but the way we answer them. 

My son’s disinterest in — and misunderstanding of — the “what’s wrong with him question” was a subtle message to the new friends. Subtle, but clear. Nothing was wrong with him. And nothing was so different about him that couldn’t be understood by the rest of us. Perhaps he’s hungry, perhaps he’s hurting, perhaps he has to use the restroom, perhaps he’s obnoxiously noisy and comfortable with his joy — all of these things are possibilities — people possibilities we can all relate to on some level.

Some of my son’s friends have tried to get to know his uncle more deeply, to help him with his possible pain and to join him in his joy. It’s been beautiful to watch.

And on that day his new friends were comfortable with the “hungry” answer, swam away and didn’t look back. They were busy playing and my brother was busy playing, too. It was beautiful to watch.

Dar swimming

Follow this journey on Autism Answers With Tsara Shelton.

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