50 First Dates with My Autistic Son

Note: This article originally appeared in Prodigal Magazine online in August of 2012.

Last week, I put on my strict daddy face and stared down my daughter from across the table. “You’re nine years old today. This has gone on far enough. You must STOP growing!”

She grinned back at me and repeated the word “nine” at least seventy-four times. I slumped into a puddle of self pity and shut my ears.

It is a game we have played for years. When Jenna turned two, she traded her onesies for princess dresses, and I missed the good ole days. Not long after, the dresses were nixed for cowgirl jeans. Before I knew it, the whole thing spiraled out of control, and now I hardly recognize my little girl. She’s putting feathers in her hair, drinking mochas, writing grown up sounding stories and obsessing over Phil Mickelson (Yes, the golfer. I’m as puzzled by this as you are.)

So I tell her I want her to stop growing up. But I am lying.

Because as hard as it is to watch your kids grow older, it is infinitely harder to watch them stay the same age.

I should know. I have a six year old with Autism.

Jackson was diagnosed when he was three, but we knew something was wrong for a year before hand. He had been a normal boy, laughing and interacting with his sisters, learning new vocabulary and throwing it in whenever he had the chance.

Then he hit a wall. I cannot remember exactly when he regressed, but I remember that he stopped exploring. Stopped playing. Stopped looking us in the eyes. Everything he had learned about his world was gone.

Specialists have worked with him for the past three years. We enrolled him in a school with autism experts. We put him on a special gluten-free, casien-free diet. We bought him an iPad for the special education apps. And we have loved the cheese out of him every day.

In some ways he has improved. Unlike many autistic children, Jackson is very affectionate and good natured. He actually enjoys being with us–something we could not have said three years ago.

But in other ways he is still three.

He does not speak to us, except to ask to go outside, get a snack, or to play with our phones. These are usually two or three word sentences. Some days he remembers his words, but most days, he just pulls our hand to the thing he wants, and we have to remind him what to say.

“I… want… chips… please…”

How many times have we taught him that sentence? Hundreds. No exaggeration. He will learn it, and the next day, we have to teach it all over again. I feel like Adam Sandler with Drew Barrymore in 50 First Dates!

The most frustrating aspect of this is that my wife and I are both skilled teachers. We thrive on boiling down difficult concepts into concrete ideas that are easy to absorb. Our son, for whatever reason, simply cannot absorb language. We’ve thrown everything we have at him, and very little seems to stick. The experts are just as baffled as we are, and there is no answer in sight.

Early on, the cycle of hope and disappointment nearly sidelined me as a dad. I had to let go of all my visions for the future, to clean the slate and start engaging my son with real love–the kind that is full of patience and empty of any performance requirements.

In short, I had to learn to love like my Father.

G.K. Chesterton wrote about God’s child-like ability to exalt in the monotonous. God makes the sun rise, and then, like a little boy being tossed into the air by his father, He says “do it again!” It seems the Creator does not get bored as easily as I do.

I get tired of the duplicate lessons that teach the same words over and over again. But in moments of more relaxed clarity, I smile to myself. Is it really so bad to have to teach my son to say “I want chips please”? After all, it is short and simple, and unlike more complex petitions with multiple subordinate clauses, it always earns a salty, delicious reward.

“I want chips please” is a perfectly good sentence, and I look forward to teaching it to my son again tomorrow.