After many years of living with my son’s autism, I feel like I know autism when I see it. It’s like I’ve got this radar, and I’m sure other long-time autism parents sense that as well. There’s a difference between a “terrible twos” tantrum and a sensory-overload meltdown. There’s the unmistakable taking an adult’s hand over to the refrigerator to open the door to get something rather than asking or pointing. The lining up of toys, the not responding to questions or comments. And yes, these are rather stereotypical signs. But it’s the child’s presence, and face, that I recognize more than anything.
A while ago I attended a child’s birthday party with a friend. It was for his co-worker’s three-year-old son, with many friends and family members present. Within minutes of observing this little boy, I knew that he had autism, not just by his mannerisms and the signs, but by his face. It was so familiar, and my blood turned to ice because I knew that his parents didn’t know. A few moments later, I turned to look at my friend, someone who had spent much time around my son over the years, and my friend’s eyes were wide. He knew, too. “I think he has autism,” my friend said quietly to me.
I felt strange. I was not close to these people. How could I go up to them and say, “I think your son has autism”? Or even the less-shocking, “Have you looked into speech therapy?” I was torn because I felt like I should do something to steer them toward early intervention, and to somehow convey to them that I understood. But it was not my place. I was an outsider.
I continued to observe the little boy and his family. There was so much love and acceptance, and so much accommodation of the autism that they didn’t know about. Was I obligated, as a seasoned autism parent, to say something? Part of me thought so. What if they knew something was different about their son? What if they were searching for answers? But a larger part of me just realized that, as a stranger, it wasn’t my place. It was a birthday party. I told my friend to give them my number if, in the future, his co-worker approached him to say that his son was diagnosed with autism.
The radar will always be with me, and I’m sure that other situations will occur throughout my life in which I find myself faced with the “should-I-say-something” dilemma. It comes with the territory. But so does a lot of support, knowledge, and understanding that I can offer down the line, when they’re ready. That’s my place in the picture.