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The Unexpected Way My Son With Autism Found His Confidence

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Earlier this year, I published a novel about a father who loses his autistic son during a blizzard, in the mountains of Colorado. The character of the lost boy, Marshall, was based on my son who has autism and an intellectual disability.

When I wrote “To the Mountain,” I wanted to create a character who is special in his own way, who is good at some things and bad at others, who is, in essence, simply human. I wanted his struggles to test the neurotypical imagination, just like it took me years to imagine the dexterity and focus it takes for my son to zip his fly (while remembering a street name or an origin of a sample, for him, is effortless). So much of autism-centered fiction is dominated by savants and protagonists with few support needs. If, in the odd chance, the main character has the same kind of autism as my son, then they are imbued with supernatural or magical powers.

Rarely in fiction do we see people with autism who cannot attend regular schools, who cannot find jobs, who struggle to read, write or do math, who require support from family or paid help, who struggle to make connections, and are often socially isolated. To function daily within two very different consciousnesses, as my son does, the neurodivergent and the neurotypical, is little more than a herculean feat. Why are those overwhelming, everyday struggles; getting dressed, tying shoes, holding a conversation with the bus driver, not the pabulum of Marvel movies?

When the promotional side of my book came along, I realized that it would be disingenuous for me to answer questions about autism. I asked my son, who had luckily read my book and enjoyed it, if he wanted to accompany me on the various interviews and podcasts. I could answer the questions about fiction and he could answer the questions about autism. He agreed and while he was shy and quiet at first, with each subsequent interview, he spoke more bravely and eloquently. He was charming and his smile had a way of ingratiating the audience. At the age of 14, I was there to watch him come out of his shell.

As a parent, it is always special to bask in the achievement of your children, but when it is your son, who has struggled with social interaction for so much of his life, and who is suddenly grinning out at an audience, answering the interviewer with brief, but coherent answers, it feels a little bit like a miracle.

One of the things I have learned about having a son with autism is that no matter how much I try and shield him, so many of the conversations about him revolve around the challenges he faces. I know that encouragement and confidence-boosting help him succeed in ways that the best therapies and educational methods can’t, but I never understood how powerful and character-altering it could be placing someone with moderate intellectual disabilities onto a stage and asking them to speak to the audience. To me, his success overshadows saving the world from Thanos.

I will continue to bring my son along to my events and clear the path for his success and of course, I will give him any opportunity I can to lead in whichever direction he may choose. There is nothing that could make me prouder than having my son take center stage so that I can drift into the backseat again as writer, observer, and admirer.

Getty image by vectorplusb.

Originally published: January 12, 2022
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