by Edward J. Nitkewicz
“Autism.” When I first heard the word, I was not sure what someone with autism acted like, sounded like or looked like. I did not know what an “Autism Spectrum Disorder” was or how it appeared in people diagnosed with autism in any of its many forms.
In the earliest years after my beautiful son was first diagnosed with “pervasive developmental disorder,” my wife and I were told by a well-intentioned therapist that Edward was temporarily “trapped” in what she described as a “peanut shell” of autism. We came to believe he was just waiting to “break out” of it. We were certain that with an intensive barrage of early intervention and therapy, the son God intended for us to have would emerge from the haze which suppressed his beautiful soul and engaging personality. I could not wait to lay eyes on the little boy I waited for through, what was for us, the trying times of procreation and pregnancy. I wanted to see my son, the one I waited my whole life for.
With anticipation, I waited for the day Edward would walk over to me and initiate a conversation in complete sentences. I looked forward to seeing my little boy shed a tear of sympathy for another person. And I knew that once my child escaped the ugly clutches of the dreadful impairment that is autism, I would see a boy as typical as any other.
As he grew older, the promise of meeting that “different child” dimmed. Left with little choice, I focused less on the child I wanted but continued to struggle to see the child I had. Physically, he looked like that “mini-me” I envisioned during the anticipatory nine months before his arrival. Emotionally he was remote, cloistered, and often beyond my reach. He could not communicate save for the echoed phrases his mother and therapists taught him to use like sign language. There was something wrong with the boy I saw.
I needed new eyes.
To fully see my son, one requires a different set of lenses much like those needed to enjoy a 3-D movie, a swim under water or a day in the sun. To fully see my son, one requires an adjustment to the way they perceive who and what is “okay” and “normal.” To fully see my son, one requires an empathetic heart, a warm soul and a broad smile.
An unknown author once wrote, “Just because someone doesn’t think the way you do doesn’t mean they are mindless. Just because someone can’t talk doesn’t mean they have nothing to say. Just because someone has a lot of special needs doesn’t mean they have nothing to offer.”
At some point that passed without an “a-ha” moment, I concluded that my son would not emerge from that “peanut shell of autism.” He would be a bit more childlike than his peers. His humor would be drawn from different well of material than the one that provides laughter to his cousins. His likes would be more difficult to understand than those of other pre-teens.
And I also came to know how simply amazing it was that I was blessed with a son who enjoys such a dizzying array of unique attributes.
I now see a young boy with little coordination stand before of a stadium of 15,000 fans, watching him throw the first pitch at a minor league baseball game as he makes a perfect throw. I now see a young boy who struggles to read, who can memorize, recognize and “belt out” an eclectic mix of songs from the Beatles, Lady Gaga, and Bread. I now see a young boy with difficulty establishing interpersonal relationships with others learn and recite every prayer in the Roman Catholic Missal, prepare for and make the Holy Sacrament of Communion, and develop his own unique relationship with God. I see a boy who is enjoying his own very unique path in this wonderful and challenging world.
I will always pray that my son can finally tell me what lies in his soul, what moves him and what brings him instant happiness. I will do everything a human being could do to bring my son out of the grip of autism.
But, so long as I am blessed with the gift of sight … I will always see him for the beautiful and wonderfully unique person he is.