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A Boy on the Autism Spectrum and His Ocean

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J.J. stands on an empty beach at the edge of the Pacific Ocean. The slant of the setting August sun turns his hair into a mess of copper coils. With a sharp squeak of glee, wearing nothing but droopy Spiderman undies, he races full speed into the water, his little arms pumping. His eyes alight. Fearless.

“No, no!” I cry, alarmed by his determination and certain the incoming wave will knock him down. He’s only 4 years old and he’s tiny. A hummingbird of a boy.

“Come this way!” I shout. “Run, run, run!”

He turns to look at me, confused. Come back? Why?

Once the crest of the wave has safely passed around his legs, he high-steps like a marching band conductor as the water swirls around him. “Whoo-oo!” he shouts. He spreads his arms wide, fingers flexed, gathering up the whole of the distant horizon in his embrace. Hurrying up the high tide. Wave after wave churn around his skinny little calves. He lowers his arms and turns to me with an incandescent grin, then is just for an instant disoriented by the rush of water back to the sea.

“Escaping!” he yells merrily.

“Yes,” I laugh. The waves? Or you?

He stands still for a long moment — and this child is never still — communing with the water and sky with such gravity and grace suddenly I think the ocean made him, instead of me. Perhaps it should have. In our dreams, his and mine, it did.

When the ocean birthed him, he didn’t get stuck, ear first and sunnyside up. His round little head didn’t tear and bleed when the suction cup failed. No one drew the line at forceps. No one pushed a gurney quickly down the hall to surgery because his heart rate never slowed.

When the ocean birthed him there were long strings of shiny green seaweed laced among his fingers and toes and a tiny crab crawled across his belly. Back and forth, back and forth, the ocean rocked him, and he washed up peacefully onshore, salty and sandy and smiling. He was content to watch the waves and sorry to leave when we wrapped him up and carried him away.

Instead, he was cut out of me — thrusting his little fist out first — and handed over and I rocked him back and forth and back and forth and the first thing I remember is not seeing him but hearing his tiny newborn breaths in my ear.

Now, it seems he has a built-in homing device and the ocean wants her boy back. It’s a wonder she hasn’t beckoned him before, her call rising over the Olympic Mountains, across Puget Sound, and through an open bedroom window, flung wide in the summer heat. Bobbing atop his light, worry-ridden sleep, he’d surely wake, sweaty curls spread across his forehead like streaks of yellow cake batter left in the bowl. He’d climb out of bed and think nothing of the front door.

My boy, I whisper to the ocean. Mine.

“Here comes another one,” I warn. He turns to look and waits. When the wave splashes against his thighs, he giggles ecstatic hicuppy giggles and bunches his shoulders up tight.

My younger son, wearing only his diaper, trots up beside me with his father close behind. My husband and I watch J.J. as he races through the waves and throws his arms wide, his head back. A marathoner crossing the finish line. The faithful in fervent prayer.

“He looks so…” I can’t find the word.

“Liberated,” my husband says.


I’m still terrified at any moment the ocean will indeed take back her boy, but I also want to fall on my knees in gratitude. Hug the horizon as does my son. I haven’t seen joy in him like this in a long time. Perhaps ever.

Not two months ago, J.J. was diagnosed with autism. By then the diagnosis wasn’t a surprise. It was water soaking into the ground. It was the sucking pop of a sealed canning jar. It was knowing what we knew.

The world has been an unfamiliar and uncomfortable place — for him, for us — for a while now. A world with sharp edges and loud noises jumping out from every corner. A world stuck to us like an itchy sweater, clinging to the sweat of our anxiety and unease. A scratchy label forever out of reach. We don’t know where our bodies are in space anymore, let alone our minds, and we bonk into things. Stationary everyday things like the coffee table and the bookshelves. We stub our toes and bruise our thighs on hard corners other people don’t even realize are there. And how our bodies found them is a complete mystery.

The wide world too often steals his joy and leaves cuts and bruises instead. It taunts. It smirks. It gives us the side-eye and turns with a huff. It deliberately misunderstands. It isn’t shy about voicing its ignorant opinions with a self-righteous raise of an eyebrow. And it yells. Always it yells.

With sensitive ears, J.J. must feel like the whole world is yelling at him. Inexplicably. Unpredictably. Honking cars and barking dogs. The coffee grinder and the blender. His brother’s full-throated rendition of “Jingle Bells” at the breakfast table. The sucking flush of an automatic toilet. The hot blasts of the espresso machine at the coffee shop. The too-loud laugh of the old man slightly hard of hearing who chats up the barista.

The freight trains rumbling along the beach at Carkeek Park scream at him. An endless line of tanker cars and boxcars and hopper cars. Thousands of wheels like a steel stampede, loud enough to raise the sleepy bottom dwellers of Elliott Bay, who might just slump onto shore, understandably displeased and feeling sorry for the boy who folds his ears forward to help dull the pain.

Hordes of typically developing children run by him on the playground, just a little too close, not realizing their shouts and laughter sound to his ears like freight trains and horn blasts and barking dogs. An accidental jostle feels like a sucker punch. They don’t understand why he hollers back in anger but exchange confused looks, shrug their shoulders, and leave him behind. They don’t understand that for a boy with ears of the most sensitive kind and a memory that accounts for every second of every day, the sounds of our ordinary life collect like tiny wounds on his skin.

The world too often steals his joy and leaves cuts and bruises instead.

Back on the beach, on this cloud-streaked summer evening, the ocean has brought back his joy. After months and years of crashing uncomfortably, often painfully, through a world that doesn’t fit, his breath deepens. My breath deepens. Our shoulders unhunch. Our hypervigilance washes away like a sandcastle at high tide.

Both of my boys are soon completely naked, discarded bits of clothing strewn across the beach like strands of corduroy and denim kelp. My husband rolls up his jeans and chases waves with J.J. Sebastian flops belly-down and scoops fistfuls of sand to pile on his bare butt and laugh. We’ll wipe out the grit for a week.

I stare out at the waves.

Suddenly I’m overwhelmed with guilt. Again. Or rather, still. I blame myself for so many things. For a failed suction cup. For worrying too much or not enough or about the wrong things. For not recognizing his autism sooner. For my endless and ordinary failures at mothering an extraordinary child.

And I’m angry. Goddamn it, why didn’t you beckon me, ocean? He’s a little boy, for crying out loud. He can’t get here on his own. I have to bring him and I didn’t know. If you’ve been keeping his joy here all along, why didn’t you tell me? I would have brought him sooner. I could have given this to him. Soft warm sand and wide skies. No smirks or side-eyes or sit-until-you-can-listen. Just hiccupy giggles and the possibility of escaping a world not built for him.

Why didn’t I know?

I’m in a tiny rowboat out there on the horizon, drifting atop everything I don’t know. Of everything I’m told is true. Of everything I’m told is untrue. Of my inability to tell the difference, down in the murky depths.

The sun sinks low and after a while, I see J.J.’s teeth are chattering. His little body is shaking. He protests, but I scoop him up in a towel and start back for our campsite.

Ocean, I think, if he really is your baby, you should have given him a thicker layer of fat. A little more protection from your cold northern waters. You also should have left a note pinned to the seaweed wrapped around his toes after you birthed him: bring him back.

But I’ll forgive you these oversights — if you’ll forgive mine — in exchange for his joy.

I wrap my arms around my shivering child and carry him over the dunes. His chin rests on my shoulder; the sound of his breath is once again in my ear. The rush of the waves — the rush of his joy — thumps through his chest. Thumping against mine.

My boy, I whisper to the ocean. Thank you, but mine.

Originally published: June 3, 2021
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