A Letter to My Autistic Son on his 10th Birthday

Dear Jackson,

Ten years ago, I was watching Super Bowl 40 when your mom went into labor. The silly woman… did you know she told me we could watch the rest of the game before we left for your delivery? She really did! But I knew that decision might come back to haunt me, and I was eager to see you anyway. My first boy.

We left during the game and met you a few hours later. We gave you the middle name Landry after the legendary Cowboys’ coach, because football is a part of Hague culture. Part of my world. Like every dad, I had visions about sharing my world with you. We would watch sports and read Narnia, and you would have lots of friends to better annoy your sisters.

By now, you know what happened next. When you turned two, you lost all your words, and we felt like we lost you. We couldn’t bring you into our world. That’s when we began searching for ways to reach you. To connect with you. We’ve been on that same journey for years now, and the truest piece of advice we have heard was this:

“Stop trying so hard to bring him into your world. Come into his world instead.”

We’ve done our best to follow that advice, son, especially this past year. And right now, on the eve of your 10th birthday, the most prominent features in your world are your movies. I confess, I don’t understand the appeal of all the DVD covers and screenshots that adorn our living room bookshelves, but that doesn’t matter. You do. You line them up, you flap them, you quote them, and you sometimes even watch them.

It is only natural, then, that these movies have become our access point into your world. Into Jackson-ville. We have become experts in Pixar and Dreamworks. We watch everything from Monsters to Minions, we do the voices, and we create all manner of fan art for you. And I suspect that you love it.

Last month, you asked a random question. “Cars 2 or Despicable Me 2?”

You might have been talking to yourself, but Jenna and mom took it as a question.

“Well I don’t really like Cars 2,” mom said.

“Yeah,” Jenna agreed. “Despicable Me 2 is funny. Cars 2 is not as good.”

You responded with this crystalline jewel:

“All right, just because everybody hates it doesn’t mean it’s not good!”

The house exploded in laughs and wonder. You may not be classified as “non-verbal” anymore, but you don’t ever string that many words together to make a sentence. We knew right away that you were quoting Gru from Despicable Me after he tasted Dr. Nefario’s new jelly recipe. You even delivered the line in Steve Carrel’s vaguely Russian-ish accent.

Scripting movie lines is an hourly occurance for you. What excited us was the question of timing. Had you just re-purposed that quote for your current conversation? Were you using Gru’s words to defend Cars 2? Had you just found a way to communicate to us using your own favorite things?

Maybe some day you can set us straight on your intentions, but for now, it takes faith. And I’m okay with faith. There are plenty of reasons to believe.

* * *

“Come on, Jack. It’s bed time,” Jenna said.

You resisted for tradition’s sake.

“Jack, let’s go. I’ve got to brush your teeth.”

You put on a pouty expression and gave another quote from an agitated Gru: “You’ve got to be pulling on my leg!”

* * *

“Jack, do you like school?” mom asked early one morning when the house was quiet.

“No, okay,” you said. That’s just how you say no.

“Why don’t you like school, bud?”

“Awkward,” you said, lifting the line from Rio.

“Oh, is it awkward at school?”

Your voice went low as you answered her. “I… awkward.”

* * *

These are the moments that make us believe you know exactly what you are saying. You are in there, son. We know you are. We know that there is more to your world than we ever could have imagined.

Do you already understand all our conversations? Do you just sit back and take it in? Do you feel frustrated that your body has trouble making words of its own? And why do you like Cars 2 so much? Is it Mater? Do you relate to him? Do you feel… awkward?

My dear boy, your family cheers for you. We want so badly to share your frustrations, to join your laughter, and help shoulder your fears. We want to experience the beautiful messiness of life with you. And it is beginning to happen. Thanks be to God, it is beginning.

* * *

When I got in the van you were waiting for me in the front seat, all buckled up and giddy. I was taking you to get McDonalds fries, your favorite sticker-chart reward. When I started the van, you looked up at me with one special request: “Hiccup?” You asked.

I launched right in, doing my best impression of the Stoick the Vast from How to Train Your Dragon. “Hiccup, son! We’ve got to gooo gaaaate yer fraaaainch friesss!”

Your eyes glowed. I know why. The scene is made up, but familiar. A boy and his father.

“I don’t know, dad…” I countered in Hiccup’s ever-quivering voice. “What if a dragon takes one?”

Your smile stretched as I switched back to Stoick.

“They woooon’t, son! Not if ya eeeeat them fossssterrrrr!”

You fell apart in laughter even before the tickling began. We shared every drop of that moment.

There are so many moments. So much laughter is ours now.

Your future can look however you want, son. Jackson-ville is your world after all, not mine. But I’m so glad you have chosen to let us in. Thank you for letting us in.

We love you, buddy. Happy Birthday.

14 replies
  1. Beth Luyendyk
    Beth Luyendyk says:

    Oh Jason, this is so well-written…we had no idea that you guys had an autistic child…what an incredibly challenging journey! So neat to hear that God is helping you to know how to enter his world and connect with him…priceless! Keep up the good fight…James and Beth (Andrew and Loralee’s nephew and niece that live in Mongolia) ; )

  2. Sally
    Sally says:

    Theres a beautiful song by jim brickman called besutiful world. I heard it the day my son entered a day treatment program for kids with ADHD. I cried so hard leaving in that secure part of the childrens hospital. But the music inspired me to make art In the hope that one day, he will ‘wake up’ and join us in this beautiful world and see how much we love him. But 3 yrs on he is now 11 and v detatched grom our world. But I am slowly realizing he had his own world and we just have to find a way to understand what thats like and try to connect to him there, rather than expect him to understand oyr world

  3. Brett
    Brett says:

    Just beautiful, Jason! The rawness, sincerity and hope are so tangible in your writing. Thank you for sharing your journey, it challenges me every time I start to think life is against me.

  4. Grace
    Grace says:

    Maybe Jackson & I can watch a few movies when I visit. I’d usually prefer to read a book, but connecting with Jack will be well worth moving out of my comfort zone!

  5. Rory
    Rory says:

    Jason, Thanks for taking us with you and Jack on your journey and into Jackson-ville. We’ve been with you from the first time you asked ‘Are you with me?!’ at the podium during service, and it certainly feels even more so like were with you when you share. Love you brother

  6. Philippa Lowe
    Philippa Lowe says:

    Oh, Jason, my son Seb and I have been reading your posts tonight after discussing Dory and hemming in. “I like him akready!” he exclaimed, loving Jackson’s response to his snow birthday gift from his awesome teacher. And now this bring extra smiles because my son fell in love with Hiccup and and Toothless at pre school. I hope you both enjoyed your fries! Beautifully written.

    • jason
      jason says:

      Thank you so much, Philippa. Oddly, Jack isn’t eating fries anymore. He did that night, but now he’s pretty much just eating peanut butter and potato chips. The chips have become his new reward 🙂 Thank you for reading.

  7. john
    john says:

    What a great dad! You and I are facing a lot of the same challenges with our sons. We have two neurotypical daughters, who actually tested gifted. Our our oldest took calculus for fun! But Gabe, he is a bit different from others. He uses words, but it took therapy for that. Most days it was one word bursts, such as “more”, “nums”, “penbutter”. But we overcame that one with…. movies! Oh dear Lord, I know more Pixar and Dream Works dialogue than any grown man on the planet. But it helped to wake Gabe’s words up. He came around, so I know there is hope for Jack.
    Gabe is still scared of a lot of the world, even though this little explorer seems fearless in so many other aspects. He’s almost 11 and last year completed 4th & 5th grades. Did nor work than any other kid in school. He is slowly learning to ride his skateboard and loves his scooter and bike. Took 5 minutes to learn to ride a two wheeler, go figure! Social cues on the other hand….. awkward. Emotionally behind, he seems to upset easily and cries over little things. But in his world, they are big. I’m still learning to realize these things. His world overlaps ours, but still it’s his. I love every moment I get to spend in it. New favorite is walking to the end of the street and going to the beach to Bob in sn the waves. No matter the temperature. …. cold daddy legs I tell ya!
    Good luck my new friend, can’t wait to see more.

  8. Jen Baker
    Jen Baker says:

    I’ve experienced the same joys when I realize I’ve actually connected with my son. Thanks for the beautiful writing! Your writing hits home.

  9. Bernice Jones
    Bernice Jones says:

    Your letter just described my son….. Thank you so much for posting that letter. Jason you are an Angel flying without wings. May GOD continue to bless and keep you and your son in his loving care.

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