When I Have ‘the Talk’ With My Son With Autism
So, here we are. We’re having the talk.
Not really, of course. I’m just writing this letter so I can figure out what to say when we do have the talk together — the talk about autism and puberty and sex.
(You know, if you say the words autism and puberty and sex really fast to yourself over and over, it sounds a little like lions and tigers and bears from the scene in the “Wizard of Oz” where they’re all walking through the spooky woods.)
When I was a teenager, my mother always warned us that once we started “going all the way” with someone, we could never go back to just holding hands. That was the whole sex talk, right there. I learned the rest in bits and pieces from movies and books and whispers at sleepovers. I finally put it all together when I watched “Revenge of the Nerds” by myself on a hot summer afternoon, and I was horrified.
The day we learned you had autism, I worried about a bazillion things. Potty training. Whether or not you could ride the bus, or if you’d ever learn to read. How to get you to sleep through the night and eat wet food like peaches and point your finger to let me know you wanted juice.
And then there were things I never thought to worry about, like excessive nail-biting, which you do now, and excessive swearing, which you also do now. Anxiety, and important-sounding words like cognitive flexibility and executive functioning.
And puberty. I never, ever worried about puberty.
Jack, puberty is the time in your life when you’ll become capable of reproducing, and hair will start growing in weird places and hormones are going skyrocket through your veins like electrical currents. It can be scary and unpredictable.
You and autism do not like things that are scary and unpredictable.
In fifth grade, you watched the movie. You know, the movie.
We had the chance to pull you out of it — to ask that you skip watching it in case you weren’t ready. But I’m a coward, and so I figured it was best you learn it from the movie so I didn’t have to explain it to you myself. That’s just good parenting right there.
As soon as you got off the bus that day, you shouted, “My day was the worsted.”
“Why? What happened?”
“They made me watch. An inappropriate movie.”
I didn’t ask what it was about. I didn’t ask what you’d learned from it. Like a turtle in my shell, I scuttled up the driveway and asked you what you wanted for a snack instead. That’s just good parenting right there.
Remember when we were all in the car a few weeks ago, and there was a lull in the radio and conversation, and you asked, “What is the sex. What does it mean.”
I glanced nervously at your dad, who was staring straight ahead, and from the third row of the minivan, 12-year old Joey groaned. “Can we not do this right now?”
I did a quarter-turn in my seat to look at you — I wanted to turn all the way around, but you know how I get carsick when I face backwards in a moving car — and used my best counselor-therapist-don’t-worry-we-got-this voice.
“Jack, that is a very important question. And I want to give you my best answer. So I’m going to—”
“Turn it. Back up. For the radio.”
“Absolutely!” Daddy answered and reached for the dial.
I was relieved, to be honest. I was happy to turn the radio up and let Justin Bieber’s voice fill the silence. Explaining the mechanics of sex to you scares me, because honestly, you can barely handle a two-armed hug — it’s nearly unimaginable how you’ll process the, ah, other parts of intimacy.
Although you’ve always been a little big for your age, your body, mind and body were usually in symbiotic rhythm together; they were pretty much on the same page of the development book. But now that you’re 11, your body is bustling forward like some fast-paced science fiction thriller, while your brain is still reading “Goodnight Moon.”
You usually prefer spending time with girls instead of boys. I used to think maybe you were a little confused about gender — the same way you didn’t understand why men don’t wear lipstick — but eventually I realized girls are simply easier for you. They tend to be expressive, animated, easy-to-read. They listen closely.
Unfortunately for you, Jack-a-boo, the rules are going to change soon, and if there’s anything you and autism both loathe, it’s when the rules change.
But with adolescence comes an inevitable shift in the way girls and boys interact. Teen girls turn to nonverbal cues to communicate their message: The rolling eye, the deep sigh, the barely perceptible shrug of delicate shoulders. Their code is subtle, nuanced.
Maybe I didn’t know enough to worry about puberty when the doctor first announced you had autism, but I did know enough to worry you would be lonely. Every day since then, I prayed you wouldn’t be lonely.
For a while I prayed you would find a nice, quirky girl and you would date her and eventually get married and maybe — fingers crossed — have one or two quirky children of your own. Basically, I wanted you to follow my own recipe for love and happiness — with an added dash of the unusual.
But it occurred to me about a year ago that I don’t want you to borrow the world through my lens. I want you to see it and live it and love it for yourself.
Jack-a-boo, I don’t care if love someone of a different race, or religion, or ethnicity. Man, woman, or purple-people eater, it doesn’t matter to me. It matters that you are kind to one another, that you care about one another, that you laugh until your sides ache and cry together at the same movies.
My own rules are changing. Autism has done that for me.
As for your question in the car, I never did answer you. You didn’t ask again, but when you do, I know what I want to tell you.
I want to tell you sex is the ultimate in togetherness, and it can be the most open kind of communication two people can ever have. It brings up big feelings, yet there is nothing to fear.
I want you to know how even people with supposedly neurotypical brains — brains that are wired to accept change and enjoy hugs — find sex confusing and alarming and fun and exhilarating and sad and hopeful.
If you choose, it can bring forth life.
I want to tell you how much I worry that you won’t be able to feel this kind of intimacy and closeness; that you’ll remain uninvolved and distant because you’re confused by the occasional eye roll or shrug of the shoulders.
As for puberty, well, that’s a lot like walking through the deep, dark woods. It’s scary and often lonely. There will be pimples, and at some points, you may lose your way. But on the other side is a beautiful field of bright, lovely flowers.
I won’t tell you any of this, though. Not yet, anyway.
I made the decision not to tell you when I watched you walk out the door into the cool, dark night on Halloween. You had on a Tony Stewart costume that was way too small for you because we couldn’t find one to fit someone as tall as you. The pants stopped just below your knees, and the sleeves barely made it past your elbow.
You walked out the door next to a girl in your class, Cee Cee, and just as you reached the steps she said, “Come on, Jack. We’ll stay together.”
So next time you ask about sex, I will wrap both of my arms around you and pull you close. I will remember that it doesn’t really matter if you’re reading a thriller or a children’s classic — you still have to turn the first page.
“Jack, one day, you may want to hold someone’s hand.”
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