Can something that breaks your heart be a gift? For most parents working their way through their kids' Christmas lists, the question has to seem a bit odd, or besides the point. But when you're raising a child who has autism, it comes up for consideration. In fact, many of us raising kids with autism choose to see the condition as a rare sort of gift.
Not everyone, of course—because the truth is, autism in the family can sometimes make things painfully difficult. But I'm a natural optimist, a glass half-full sort of parent. I like to focus on what's good about autism: having a kid who is innocent and honest (sometimes to a fault), whose love comes without condition, and whose existence in my life has taught me the real meaning of patience.
But sometimes even I slip. A recent afternoon we set aside to raise the Christmas tree was one of those times—a family farce that for a short time felt like tragedy, until I remembered again to laugh.
We hauled the tree, a good seven-footer, home and raised it upright in its metal stand, ready to be decorated. But before we got to that, I turned to my oldest son Mickey, our 5-foot-10 beanpole. He is bright, sweet, handsome, and has autism. Much as I hate to admit it, he'd been driving me crazy that day, chattering nearly non-stop about the song “Strawberry Fields.” People with autism tend to get stuck on particular topics—obsessed really—and right now for Mickey, it was a classic Beatles song. At least 50 times, Mickey had said: "Song 432 is Strawberry Fields—do you like that song, Mom? Do you like it backwards, Mom?”
Lately, he'd been recording songs backwards on our computer, then posting them on YouTube. He'd garnered an amazing number of hits, which was only encouraging his obsession. To get him off that topic, and because the tree needed watering, I broke in with: “Mic, can you please go water the tree for us.”
I was in the next room when I heard the splash. Rushing into the living room, I saw water everywhere. The tree was drenched and dripping. The carpet under it was soaked. So were some important papers I'd left on a nearby table. Puddles were taking shape by the side of, and apparently under, the sofa, and now a small river was heading toward the stairs.
Angry, I lost it right then and there. "What were you thinking?” I yelled, throwing down towels, waving the soaked papers in a hopeless effort to salvage them, shouting down my other son, Jonah, who had now joined the verbal barrage on his brother, calling out: “Mickey, what's wrong with you?” Soon I was screaming at Jonah who was screaming at Mickey who was, of course, now also yelling, pulling at his hair, stomping his feet, sliding into a full meltdown with his eyes bulging.
It wasn't the water I was raging about. It was Mickey's vulnerability. It'll be there long after I'm gone.
Mickey then starts to yell at no one in particular. “I am horrible at watering the tree,” Mickey began to wail. “I am a horrible tree waterer! I am so horrible at everything!”
When I heard this, my heart broke, as it so often has for my beloved first born child. I wondered, am I so used to his peculiarities that I can forget that his brain works differently?
Mic, standing there with a bucket in his hand, had no idea what he'd done wrong. To his mind filling that bucket up with water, and hurling it at the tree was precisely what I'd asked him to do. “Water the tree.” I knew right away that this was actually my mistake. I should have anticipated he'd interpret the verb “to water” literally.
I know how hard Mickey tries, and how this accident was not even close to his fault. That's what set me off—the knowledge that Mickey will always have moments like these, except that the people he upsets may never really understand. What if it's a boss, or a co-worker, the woman at the checkout counter, or even a fellow passenger on the bus—assuming he gets that far in life (and I have to assume that, that critical "hope" piece). It wasn't the water I was raging about. It was Mickey's vulnerability. It'll be there long after I'm gone.
Now I thought, "How do I undo this damage?" I know, I thought quietly to myself, "I will teach him."
To calm us both down, I had Mickey help me wipe up the puddles, the two of us on hands and knees working as a team. Then I showed him how to “water the tree” properly, bowing together to get in under the lower branches, taking care not to let them poke us in the eyes. Mickey's long thin fingers were still a bit shaky as he poured, a result of poor fine-motor skills, and me. He got it right this time, and I told him we could water the tree again tomorrow. He understood now. He'd become quite a good “tree waterer,” a term that is just so pure “Mickey” that when I threw myself into the sofa a few minutes afterward, I actually cracked a smile.
Maybe that's why he picked this moment to pull out his Christmas wish list. This tall teenager, curled up with his mom—and his brother Jonah joined us too—reading aloud a list of gifts only someone like Mickey could ever produce: a public transportation manual, a red pea coat, a purple pea coat, an accordion, tap shoes, a space bag, the book Adventures with Nicholas, (in French), a morning "check list," a new cell phone, a purple swimsuit, a vuvuzela.
That was just for starters. And yes, feel free to laugh, because as he kept going, I did, and so did Jonah, both of us, hysterical with laughter. And because we were laughing, Mickey joined in too. In front of our still soggy, sorry Christmas tree, the three of us, wrapped around each other, giggling till it hurt, which made it not hurt so much anymore.
Is autism a gift? Not to everyone, not all the time. But it is for me, especially in moments like this one, that were made by Mickey, our son who has autism.
Caren Zucker is a television producer currently working on a six-part series on autism for the PBS NewsHour with Robert MacNeil.