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What I Learned From My Son With Autism on a Summer Day at the Pool

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The pool — our neighborhood pool, to be exact. A favorite destination of ours on hot, summer days in Pennsylvania. Many of our friends meet at the pool for some relaxation, fun, and companionship. The snack bar is always open, music playing in the speakers affixed to the lights surrounding the pool, lifeguards watching from high above in their chairs. Summer afternoons spent at the pool are our favorites. ​

One day in mid-July, the sun and heat at their most extreme, we packed our pool bag for an afternoon of sun and fun. I made sure to pack towels, juice boxes, diving sticks, pool floats, and, of course, goggles, as well as water guns and toy watering cans. Nico, as well as my other children, have their preferred pool toys, and ensuring I have them packed with us always guarantees our times at the pool are extra fun for everyone. Arriving at the pool without our second son’s diving sticks that he uses in competitions with his friends, or without my daughter’s goggles she uses when diving in the deep end, without our other son’s pool float, or without Nico’s watering can, which he enjoys using to spray water in small streams endlessly, would surely end in disappointment. ​With our bag packed and sunscreen applied, we headed to the car. The sun beat down on us as we packed the car, and we were off. As we pulled into the gravel parking lot, it quickly became apparent that many other members of the pool had the same idea as us on this scorching day. The pool was crowded, many people enjoying the cool water, a relief from the heat. ​

We found a pool chair close to the shallow end of the pool on which to place our things. I emptied the towels and sunscreen out of the bag to make it easier for the children to find their pool toys, all of which had found a home on the bottom of the bag. The floats were clipped onto our youngest children, and goggles placed on their faces. Nico grabbed his watering can and announced he was ready to join the others in the pool. I pulled my windswept hair out of my eyes into a messy ponytail. Four excited children at the pool and a hot summer afternoon leaves very little room for vanity. I reached into the pool bag to grab sunscreen, my final step before I, too, was ready to join the others, and looked up. Nico was looking at me, his blue eyes soft. He was smiling out of the corner of his mouth. “Hi, Sweet Guy,” I said to him. He didn’t break eye contact as he replied, “Mom, you’re beautiful.” He leaned in to give me a long kiss. He waited for me to finish getting myself ready for an afternoon in the water, and we walked, hand in hand, to the side of the pool. ​Nico sees the many things this world has to offer with purity, without bias, without the negative, judgmental filter though which most of us see. He sees things in their rawest form.

a young boy staring in the distance

That day at the pool … it was moving. Most of us spend hours, whether consciously or subconsciously, taking life’s most simple joys or pleasures, and coming at them with a bias. That giant piece of cake? Yes, it is good, but it is loaded with calories.  The waves at the beach? Sure, they are fun, but what about sharks? How about that movie you’ve been waiting to see for so long? Yes, it is in theaters, with only a week or so left, but who wants to wait in the lobby with a bunch of screaming children and teenagers on a Friday or Saturday night? And the popcorn and candy? Overpriced. The veil though which we see this world, for most of us, is tinted grey. It is layers deep, with each layer carrying a different experience or feeling that eventually clouds the way we see things.

My son has given me the ability to remove this veil. The ability to see things as they are, for what they are. When he looked at me and said the words he did, it was because he saw beauty. Not messy hair, dark roots peeking through the blonde, wrinkled lines around my eyes and forehead, or my lack of makeup. These are all layers of my veil, how I see myself, how I perceive how I had “failed” to fill the expectation of a fun, young mom at the pool. He saw me. Raw. No bias.

This ability, to recognize how many things around us are beautiful, exciting, or special, simply because they are, is a gift. The $5 hanging basket of flowers in my front yard, those pink blooms now stop me in my tracks. No longer do I think about the dying flowers in the basket, or how I wanted to buy the $25 basket. I now see vibrant pink, a beautiful color, made even more so against the grass behind it. If you catch me playing in the snow with my children on a blustery winter day, it is because I’ve been given a gift. The snow is beautiful. It is fun to build ramps, and snowmen, complete with scarves and a carrot nose. I no longer notice how cold it is, or how challenging it is to keep track of snow gear for four young people. I’ve been taught how to remove my veil, to see the truth, it’s simplicity and beauty overwhelming. I hope I never remember how to put it back on.

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Originally published: December 11, 2020
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