The 4 Important Lessons My Autistic Son Taught Me

Yesterday afternoon, I was as usual teaching Michael. His lessons weren’t going well, to put it mildly.

My son spent half an hour not understanding his shape sorter. As usual, he stuffed every shape into the ‘circle’ one. Then he totally refused to concentrate on his puzzles. Couldn’t match a picture of a water tube to an actual water tube. Since the other option was a shoe, it was hard to mix them up. Yet he did. After a session like that I do not write blog posts. I am trying to be positive here, and it’s hard to be positive when you just can’t…even…

I gritted my teeth. Fed him dinner. He ate all of it. The peas, the corn, the tomato and the steak. Especially the steak. I tried to concentrate on how great that is. But the session just stayed on my mind.

Then he ran around like crazy. And I thought – why am I so unhappy?

I realized I am only pretending to myself that I am unhappy because I feel sorry for him. There is no reason to feel sorry for my son. He is a very happy, healthy little boy. He has his challenges but if anything he is happier than the other children around him. I know that with early intervention his future looks good and he will have a full life.

So why was I sad?

And of course, in reality, I wasn’t sad about him. I was sad for myself. I was sad because he didn’t do the things I wanted him to do, and he wasn’t interested in the things I was interested in.

Undoubtedly, it’s the possible intellectual impairment that hits me the hardest. Not the autism. Autism in itself is pretty irrelevant to me. I can support him through it. I can help with the sensory issues. They do keep me up at night (quite literally, I’m writing this at 4:23am) but I can handle it. The fact that he doesn’t like the activities other kids like is ok too. I wouldn’t mind obsessive interests. In fact I’d love some obsessive interests, so I could see him learning and enjoying something, instead of just running backwards and forwards or staring at his fingers!

The thing hardest to bear for me is the intellectual impairment. His IQ is possibly/very likely under 70 at the moment, although it’s so hard to measure at his age. I can see how hard it is for him to learn anything. He can barely look at a book for a minute. He can’t concentrate on the pictures in the jigsaw puzzle, even for a second. It’s very hard for him to match a picture to an item (a picture of a block to the block, a picture of a sock to the sock). These are basic skills that babies just do, even before they turn one.

I get sad that he may never share my love of learning. The importance of intelligence, marks, skills and above all education, been drilled into me from birth. To my family these are the true markers of a person’s worth.

And then I decided to do a ‘mind switch’ and look at all the things he’s good at, that I’m not. All the things he has taught me. And the things he has left to teach me.

Lesson 1: Knowledge Isn’t Everything

I have never cared much about money, beyond a certain baseline. My parents never had very much. I had about two dresses growing up, and most of my clothes, other than my school uniform, were hand me downs from other kids. And that was fine. I was fed, I had clothes, I had a roof over my head. I went to a good school, I had good friends.

My version of wealth was always in books, in knowledge, and skills. If I talked to someone and they didn’t know who Tolstoy was, I was shocked and horrified. And then tried to avoid them. In Russian there is a word for someone that has bad general knowledge – it translates loosely as ‘grey’. If you don’t know what year Mozart was born or when Napoleon invaded Russia you were grey. Colourless. Unremarkable.

Michael has taught me how happy it is possible to be without books. I’m pretty sure Michael thinks in exclamation marks. He looks around at the world and is just so excited by it! The wind! The trees! The way the leaves move in the sun! His shadow is so cool! And wow that magpie looks interesting let’s follow it! Ooh that car! And that one!

It is a pleasure to watch him and look at the world through his eyes.

Who cares if he can’t read Marcel Proust. He can enjoy life in a way people like me will never be able to. He can actually live the things I read about. Instead of reading Pride and Prejudice, he will go out there and dance and kiss the girls. He kissed his first girl today, and he’s well under three years old. I have much to learn from him!

Lesson 2: How To Live In the Moment

Michael can run up to a girl and give her a hug. A total stranger. He did it today. II’m not saying Michael’s way is right. I have to have some serious words with him about consent when he’s older. But he will always take a chance in life when people like me are watching from the side, measuring every possible thing that can go wrong.

It’s pretty funny but Michael lives all the stupid inspirational advice. He does dance like no one is watching. In the middle of a busy supermarket. He sings like no one is listening. While on a crowded bus. If he doesn’t want you to hug him, he won’t let you hug him. He climbs all the mountains (well chairs in my living room). He runs around at the beach and doesn’t care that he looks a bit chubby in the tight swimwear and little shorts. Michael really and truly doesn’t care what anyone thinks about him.

My kid is a mindfulness GENIUS! One day he will do those inspirational talks or co-author a book with Elizabeth Gilbert. She will write it. He will live it!

Lesson 3: The Importance of Trying Everything and Persevering

My husband spends a lot of time teasing me about my hatred of sports. Tennis, soccer, cricket, any kind of sport to me is something to be hated and feared. It’s not because I dislike physical activity. I love dancing, I love running around with Michael, and I used to go to the gym for hours (back when I had time). I’m just not very good at it. And I’m good at so many things, that I’m not used to doing things I fail at.

I didn’t have to work hard at school until about year 9 and when I did, it was still less than other people. Even at uni I did about one hour of study for every two that other people did. I just assumed it was my birthright – this natural ability to remember things and understand them quickly. The flip side of that is that if they didn’t come easily I would give up and never learn them at all.

But I look at Michael who struggles with almost every skill. Who dislikes so many things at first. And yet he tries and tries again. Thousands of times. With my help of course, with breaks, with a lot of encouragement and rewards for every little step. And then he learns them. He actually really and truly learns and masters tasks that I never thought it possible for him to master. Through repetition, through time and effort, he gets there every single time. Every single thing I have ever tried to teach him, he learned. Every concept. With the right motivation, of course.

More importantly, he grows to love many of these things. And maybe if I ever do gear myself up to play tennis with my husband, I will love that too.

Lesson 4: How To Love Unconditionally

Before I had Michael, I felt love. I loved my parents, I loved my friends and I love my husband very much. But the love I feel for Michael is different.

With my husband, the love is conditional on what and who he is. If tomorrow I woke up and my husband turned into a completely different person I don’t think I would still be in love with him. I love him for his interests, his personality, his intelligence. There are many qualities I admire in him. I know he will change, and so will I, but the fundamentals will always be there.

But I loved Michael just as much even before he was born. Before I knew he was going to be a boy, and his name was going to be Michael, and he was going to have this personality and these interests. It doesn’t matter what he does or what he becomes in life, that love will always be there.

Unconditional love. The purest and most joyful kind.

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