“Am I autistic?”
I knew there would be a day when Sawyer would realize he was different than other kids. I have thought many times over the years about how I would explain autism to Sawyer, and what that meant for him, but I never thought it would come so early in his life. I wasn’t totally prepared to explain it to him, but I did my best.
One night in early 2022, Caitlyn came home from school upset. When I asked what was wrong, she said she would tell me later, and motioned towards Sawyer. I felt my heart sink, and in my head I already knew what was coming. Caitlyn had been telling me for months about boys in her class making fun of kids with autism. They would flap their hands against their chest, make crazy faces, and other things to imitate being stupid. Kids are kids, and that’s never going to change. We did it back in the day, too, and back then we used the R word to indicate that somebody was stupid. These days, however, apparently kids like to say “I’m autistic!”
A couple of the boys in her class had started saying “I’m autistic” and making fun of stimming movements and sounds that autistic people often exhibit. Caitlyn stood up to these boys every time, and it seemed that it only got worse when they realized it made her so upset. That day in particular was no different; after Sawyer left the room to go play on the computer, she explained what had happened at school. She told me she got so mad when the boys in her class were doing this, she almost hit one of them. She said she told the boy “When you make fun of people with autism, you make fun of people like my brother, and that is NOT OK!” The boys reply? “Nobody cares about your stupid brother”. That’s when she lost it, and if it hadn’t been for other kids in the room at the time that held her back, she said she would have punched him in the face. It upset her deeply, and she cried all afternoon.
My girls are fiercely protective of their little brother, as they should be. The world is a cruel and ugly place, and we all want to shield him from as much of the ugly as we can. But in our anger over what happened with those boys, we forgot to keep our voices down, and Sawyer overheard us. Shortly after Caitlyn told me about telling the boys that when they make fun of autistic people, they are making fun of people like her brother, Sawyer came into the living room. His sweet voice cut into the tension in the room as he asked “Am I autistic?”
Caitlyn and I both winced, and I looked at him, his beautiful hazel eyes staring at me with the same innocence and curiosity that he always approached new topics with. “Uh-oh”, I thought. I wasn’t prepared to have this conversation now; he was only just turned 9 years old. I nodded at him and spoke slowly, trying to plan my words carefully so he could understand what I was about to tell him, and to control my emotions. “Yes, you are autistic. You have something called autism, which means that your brain works a little differently than most people.” He came over to sit on the couch next to Caitlyn, and she immediately wrapped him in a hug to cuddle with him. He didn’t say anything, but he watched me, waiting for me to continue, so I did.
“You know how you like to run a lot, and you clear your throat over and over because it feels good?” I asked him, and he nodded with a small smile. “You do those things because you have autism. It’s also why you can’t stand tags in your clothes, and why you get overwhelmed in places like the gym . Your brain works differently than mine or Caitlyn’s, so the way you hear or feel things is different than the way we would.” He nodded again, and appeared to be deep in thought. I waited and watched to see if he would get upset, but thankfully he didn’t. Instead he looked at me and asked “Why were those boys making fun of people with autism?”
My breath caught in my chest. This was the part I dreaded. I didn’t know how to explain to him that some kids may make fun of him just for being different. I took a deep breath and spoke slowly again, praying silently for God to give me the right words to explain this to his sweet heart. “Well… some people with autism can’t talk very well, and some people can’t talk at all and they make different sounds over and over. Some people with autism also like to flap their hands or do stuff like rock back and forth because it feels good to them, like running feels good to you. People that don’t understand autism or know what it is may think people who do stuff like that are weird or stupid, so they make fun of them because they’re mean. But people with autism aren’t weird and they’re not stupid. They are just different, and that’s totally ok.” Sawyer turned to Caitlyn and asked her “Were the boys in your class being mean to me?” She nodded and told him “Yeah, they were being ugly. That’s why I got so mad. But it’s ok, Munchkin. I stood up for you because I love you.” She squeezed him tight and planted a hard kiss on his cheek, and Sawyer giggled. As I watched them cuddling, my sweet girl showering her brother with love, I felt a swell of emotions within me. It was heartwarming to see my babies being so sweet to each other, but I also still felt so angry at those kids, and so sad for my boy. This was the part I had been dreading since Sawyer was diagnosed with autism at 20 months old. I didn’t want to have to explain to him that some people may treat him ugly because he is different than other people- especially while he was still so young.
Sawyer has surprised me, and made me so proud, though. Since that day, he has asked many questions about autism and what it means for him. I have explained stimming to him, and I’ve explained that it’s why he has a hard time with some of his homework at school and has to go to special classrooms for help sometimes. I’ve explained to him that the reason people make fun of people with autism is because they don’t understand it, and I told him that since he has autism, we should make it our jobs to help people understand autism better. I told him “Some people will be mean and ugly to you because they don’t understand how your brain works, and they might think some of the stuff you do is weird or silly. So we need to teach them. And if they’re still ugly, then we will just pray for them and ask God to help them be better people.” Sawyer has an insanely good memory, and he brought up that conversation a few times to me over the last few months when he would say I should start a blog. He’d say “We should tell people about autism, and why I do funny stuff sometimes, because they might not understand.” And so, we did.