A Letter to my Autistic Son on His 11th Birthday

Dear Jack,

You told us something the other day, something that broke our hearts. Mom pulled out the paper and pencil and sat you down in your room. She asked you how you were feeling. You said “sad,” and that you didn’t want to go to school. She kept prodding you, and you said the word “awkward.” Then she helped you find more words: “Mater the Tow Truck.” You said you were awkward like Mater. Then, you did something you almost never do: you spoke a full, clear sentence out loud. You said, “Kids laugh at me.”

Moments like this make us sad because you are sad. They make us a little angry, because people should be more kind. And they make us hopeful too, because you were able to use your words in a very special kind of way, letting us know about a tender thing happening inside you. That is what we long for more than anything, son. We want to know what is happening deep inside you. And now that we know you are hurting, it brings us back to sadness.

I think I know why you feel awkward.

It’s because you have movies playing inside your head, and you can’t make them stop. You start reciting lines from the beginning of Cars 2, where Finn McMissile is on the boat. Then you continue on through Radiator Springs. We hear the voice of Larry the Cable Guy and Owen Wilson. We hear Weezer singing that old song, “You might Think I’m Foolish,” only it isn’t Weezer, it’s you. On a trip to Portland last month, I think you made it through the whole movie.

There is a word we use for this. We call it “scripting.” Lots of people with autism do it. And it’s okay. It really is. We like it, because you can make your voice sound like the characters you are quoting and it makes us smile.

But I know, sometimes it can be embarrassing because not everybody knows you, and not everybody likes it. Sometimes they get irritated with you. Sometimes they laugh. They don’t understand how those predictable movie quotes help you to calm down in such a scary, unpredictable world. They just think you’re talking to yourself, and they can’t tell what you’re saying.

They don’t know you.

They don’t know how gentle you are when the little babies come over. They haven’t seen you bring a tissue to a crying little girl. They don’t know how much you get distressed when your brother gets hurt, or how you smile big when someone in your family comes back after being gone a few days. They don’t know that you love dance parties, or that you carry the electric salt shaker all around the house in case a waffle shows up.

No. They don’t know you, son.

But here’s the thing: there are many of us who do know you, and in our opinion, you are easily one of the top ten eleven year olds that ever was. Your heart is kind, your smile is infectious, and your Timon and Pumba impressions are straight fire. What’s more? You work so hard to communicate with us. I know it’s not easy, but you don’t ever quit.

When you let us into your world like you did on Friday, you know what it does? It actually makes you stronger. I know, that sounds silly, but it’s true. When you tell us how you hurt, it means you don’t have to hurt alone anymore. It lets us come close to you, to hug you, to cry with you, and to help you carry those heavy feelings that weigh you down. And then, we get to remind you how valuable you are, for you bear the image of God himself, and nothing—-neither seizures nor scripting nor children who laugh—-will ever separate you from His affection or ours. You are our son. Our delight.

I wish I could say life will get easier as you grow up. It won’t. Growing up means there will be more hard mornings, more mean kids, and more afternoons where your head aches because your little brother is screaming about absolutely nothing. While I can’t protect you from things that make you cry, I can promise you that you won’t have to cry by yourself. We will go through it all together, and we’ll make it, because that’s what families do. They hold each other, then they turn on Cars 2 music and dance around the living room until the laughter comes back.

Today, as you turn eleven, I want to ask you if you will let us in even more. We count it a privilege to share all the happy scenes with you, and to help you shoulder the sad ones. Indeed, it is our joy.

Happy birthday, son. I am so proud of you. We all are.

Dad



Images graciously provided by Anne Nunn Photographers. You really should go like Anne’s page.

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.

A Letter to My Autistic Son on His 9th Birthday

Dear Jackson,

You turn nine tomorrow, and there is one moment from this past year that I want both of us to remember always. We were at the lake. The one where we can see the mountains up close. Your brothers and sisters were splashing around, soaking in the afternoon, but you weren’t having any of it. You were standing on the shore looking concerned and very dry. This had been your way for the past several months, which was sad because you love the water. Always have. But something had changed.

“What’s the matter buddy?” I asked, not expecting you to answer. You like to keep us guessing, see.

But this time you did answer. You pointed to the water and spat out three panicked words: “Great white shark.” Because you had been watching Wild Kratz, see…

It was a sad, beautiful moment for us all. Sad because we saw you were afraid, and beautiful because you finally gave us the answer to our long-standing riddle.

I picked you up your tense little frame and tiptoed through the shallow water, assuring you that there were no sharks in the lake. With every step, you started to release your breath. To believe me, little by little. To exchange those irrational bits of fear for the pieces of joy they were keeping you from. When that transaction was complete, you spent the afternoon glorying in the lake like a river otter.

This is my story as much as yours.

I have my own irrational bits of fear that have kept me from joy, and those fears are about you.

10689832_10204435416837159_1226580369505442984_nYou see, when a dad discovers that his son has autism, one of the first things he has to learn is to let go of his expectations. And I did. It took me a long time, but I did. I learned to embrace you where you were. To let go of my desire to rush you along in your development. I learned to stop comparing you to the other boys your age, who are playing basketball, reading books, and having heart-level conversations.

I thought that meant I had learned patience. I was wrong. I had simply learned not to hurry. But that is not the same thing as patience.

Let me explain: Last week, I met a family who had a boy like you. An autistic boy who did not use words, but kept to himself and his chosen comfort toys. They were sad, just like I am sometimes, because they wanted relationship with him. But when he was seven or eight, something amazing happened: he started talking. He started relating. He went to school and learned all the same things as the other boys his age. And now, he is a teenager and has a bright future ahead of him.

When I heard their story, I thought of you, of course, and I wondered, “What if Jack were to break out of his box?” And immediately, I felt a panic like you did on the shore of that lake. I tensed up and pointed to the water, yelling: “Hope! Hope!”

What an ugly revelation that was. After all I have learned, I am still afraid to commit to believing in your eventual breakthrough. Hope, to me, is a scary animal with teeth in it.

And that is why I now believe my patience has been false.

A man who waits without any expectation is not being patient. He is simply loitering.

I have been a loitering father. As a result, I have cheated you out of well-deserved praise, and cheated myself out of joy. I have glossed over the very real strides you are making. You are interacting with other people far more and far better than ever before. You have, by and large, stopped injuring yourself. You are learning and deploying new vocabulary to the point that your mother just said to me, “he wouldn’t be classified as non-verbal anymore.” She is right.

And then there’s something else which I confess I never saw coming: you are learning to read.

Last night, you were getting into the van and you dropped a homework paper. I picked it up and motioned to the big black letters at the top. “What does that say, Jack?”

You pointed to each word as you spoke:

“I. Can. See.”

Yes, you can. I want to see, too.

I want to see forward without fear. I want to be the kind of father who not only loves his son through the challenges, but who believes he will overcome them, too. I want to be like the early riser who faces east and waits for the dawn with certitude. I want to anticipate the inevitability of our sunrise–yours and mine alike. In our breakthroughs. And despite my fears, I know this is a good and reasonable hope, because the same God who programed the sun also programmed us with a deep desire for wholeness. And why would He give us such desires unless wholeness was a real thing?

It is coming. Hope is rising.

My son, let me begin anew: You are winning. You are kicking down the doors of your box. I can see it. I couldn’t be more proud of you and all the strides you have made. And this year… this is the year we overcome. Together.

Happy birthday, my boy. I love you.

Dad

A Letter to My Autistic Son on his 8th Birthday

Dear Jack,

You’re turning 8 today, and the snow is falling just for you. We don’t get much snow in the valley, but all of a sudden, it’s coming down, and you are right now glorying in the experience. It is a testament to you that none of us doubts the possibility that God sent the snow just for your birthday. Because you delight us, son, and it stands to reason that you delight the hosts of heaven even more.

While I hope the snow lingers a bit, it must not interrupt the mail, because your present is coming. The “American Spy Car.” You’ve been checking the mailbox for it every day. When it comes, you will do what you always do. You will line it up on the bookshelf with other toys of its genre–in this case, Lightning McQueen, Mater, and Finn McMissile–and then you’ll flap the daylights out of them all. And I will think of the autistic boy in Japan, who could not speak but learned to type. He wrote a book explaining why he does the things he does. Flapping? He explained that light can be so harsh sometimes, and the act of flapping filtered it. Calmed it. Made whatever he was looking at more beautiful.

Is that why you flap, son? To make things more beautiful?

There was a time when these questions depressed me, but they intrigue me now. You intrigue me. Especially after what happened last week.

You brought this book home from school. It was a red, cardboard book for very young children. Every page showed the same two characters: a big penguin and a little penguin. “I like it when we hold hands,” one page said, or “I like it when you tickle me.” You opened it up next to your mother and smiled brilliantly, pointing at the big penguin, then the little one:

“Jack and Daddy,” you said.

Mommy sent me a frantic message about it. When I came home, you were almost as eager to say it again as I was to hear it.

“Jack and Daddy.” It made you giggle. Your eyes were alight. And mine were welling up.

It’s not a simple thing, son, to understand relationship. This has been why your mom and I sometimes still get so sad about your experiences. The limitations of your autism have stopped your tongue, and severely hampered your connections with people. With us. And this is not the way it is supposed to be. It is wrong.

You have probably heard me say things like “God created us for relationship,” because I am a preacher, and I say that often. I believe it with all my heart, and that is the top reason why we fight for you. Because you are our son, and we want you to experience all you were meant to experience. And the most basic experience a child ought to feel is the love of his own family.

We didn’t know you felt it.

But then came, “Jack and Daddy.”

Did you understand what those words would mean to us, my boy? Did you say them on purpose, to assure us that you do know our love? That you get us?

I hope that you can read this someday, and understand the joy that comes with your overtures of affection. Just a glance from your eye does wild things to our hearts, son. And I am honored beyond words to be penguins with you.

A Letter to My Autistic Son on His 7th Birthday

Dear Jack,

I’m writing this letter in faith that one day you will be able to read it, understand it, and forgive us for the mistakes we are making with you.

Tomorrow is your birthday. Seven years ago, I was watching the first quarter of the Super Bowl and your mom’s water broke. I joked that it meant something. That you wanted to come out and watch the Steelers beat the Seahawks. I took it for granted that we would someday watch football games together and practice fade routs in the back yard. Read more