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What My Son's Favorite Color Taught Me About the Autism Spectrum

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Tommy is my 5-year-old son. His favorite color since he was 2 years old is gray. It always seemed like an odd choice for a little boy. We embraced it with gray clothing, gray cups, gray paper plates for his birthday parties, gray backpacks and gray lunch boxes. Last Halloween, after presenting him with countless costume ideas, we let him be the only thing he would finally agree to: a gray crayon.

Tommy gets frustrated on a daily basis when trying to communicate with us. His language is severely delayed and he has a hard time communicating everything he wants us to hear, but he can say “I love you” perfectly clearly.

Tommy likes rules. He reads the age suggestion on the back of toy boxes and follows them. One time he sighed in defeat and put a Nerf gun back on the shelf because the back of the toy said ages 8 and up. Tommy uses the same cup every night before bed and this is his third year with the same backpack. Tommy will not eat popcorn without a movie. Tommy knows he can not go in the street until he is 10 and can’t drink coffee until he is 16. He does not want to participate in Fourth of July celebrations because fire is too dangerous. He will never, ever get out of his bed after we tuck him in for the night but…

Tommy cannot follow rules when he is overwhelmed. He melts down when frustrated or surprised and his meltdowns look a lot like a tantrums, but they are not. The meltdowns are not to get what he wants. He does not want anything but order and security when the meltdown passes.

Tommy has known his numbers, letters, shapes and colors for a long time and he is great at math but he does not understand why I wave to people I know. Tommy will hold the door open for myself and for strangers alike, but he won’t greet them or look them in the eye as they pass.

Tommy won’t let me put a band-aid on him or let his hands be sticky, but he sat perfectly still when the dentist drilled his teeth for a filling.

Tommy yells and sings at the top of his lungs, but covers his ears when we talk too much in the car.

Tommy ignored his brother for over a year and a half when he was born. He would not acknowledge him; he never tried to hold him or touch him. Then one night, I heard Tommy singing his brother to sleep as I stood outside their room in disbelief.

Tommy’s brother Billy has autism. Today Tommy was diagnosed with autism. Tommy and Billy are both on the autism spectrum, although they are very different.

I never understood the idea of the spectrum until today. I thought a diagnosis was as plain as black and white. I have seen the paperwork; I have seen my children reduced to a series of points and scores. Numbers that mean nothing to me, except to scream that my child is somehow not measuring up.

I am not here to celebrate or honor the black and white. I am not interested in measuring my child by a series of prompts or miscues. Turns out Tommy was trying to tell us all something with his choice of favorite color choice of gray. Things are all not easily categorized into black and white. Some things fall between, in the gray.

How we move forward with our two boys is not clear; it is not a perfectly lit path with simple directions. I can not say what my expectations are for their future or if we are making all the right choices for them. The future is a little murky, uncertain and sometimes it seems a little scary. Although I feel overwhelmed and unsure, with Tommy’s help I am going to move forward and embrace the color gray.

I am not going to look at the diagnosis strictly as black or white. I am not going to look for a quick fix or absolutes. My boys are not a problem to be solved or a riddle to be understood. I am not going treat my boys’ autism label as the star player, but I will not hide their diagnosis as if it is not an integral part of the team. I will learn to appreciate that nothing is black or white and life has a full and wonderful spectrum of perfect shades of gray.

Getty image by Garrett Aitken.

Originally published: October 15, 2019
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