My son knows he has autism. He's only seven, but he knows.
In fact, I told Jack that he has autism a couple of years ago. I made a conscious decision that it would be easier for him to grow up with the word that to have it suddenly hurled at him when he is older. I'm not saying that this is the approach for every family, but for us, this is what we decided.
See, Jack knows he's different. He knows he has a paraeducator at school. He knows he goes to speech and occupational therapy and social skills group, but that not every kid does. He knows he acts differently than the other kids in his class.
I want to get to Jack and teach him that his autism is a mix of pluses and minuses, but that his differences don't make him less. I want to get to him before he hears that autism is a bad thing. I want him to grow up into a proud autistic man, and in order to do that, I need to tell him about Autism and Jack before he hears about Autism and Devastation.
Naturally, I'm completely flipped out that I am doing exactly the wrong thing.
I've always talked about autism with my kids in terms of the way people's brains work. "All of our brains work differently," I tell them. "Some things are harder for some of us because of this and some things are easier. Jack, the way your brain works is called autism." All of us have differences, I tell them, but Jack's difference happens to have a name.
I've told my kids that there are all kinds of autism and we've talked about how Jack is really good at remembering things and how my oldest son is good at talking with other kids and how my youngest is good at making people laugh. All three of my kids, as well as my husband and I, have strengths and weaknesses, and we talk about them. We talk about how no one can be good at everything, but we can use our strengths to be the best people we can be.
I also think the fact that Jack has siblings is a reason why we talk so much about autism. With one older and one younger brother who intuitively recognize that they should help Jack with the things he struggles with, it only seems fair to talk to them about why he's different.
I also hope that the more I normalize Jack's autism, the more his brothers will be inclined to respond to "What's wrong with your brother?" with "Nothing. His brain just works a little differently. He's cool."
Mostly, I want Jack to feel good about himself. How much he decides to self-identify as autistic is ultimately up to him. I'm just trying to lay some groundwork in hopes that he doesn't feel that his autism will make him a failure. I've been waiting for his self-awareness to kick in more before we get a little deeper into the nuances of it all.
It looks like that's starting to happen. The other day Jack and I were in the car and he was pretending to be Garfield, as he is wont to do. He asked me if I knew Jack. I told him I did. Then Jack (as Garfield) said, "He has a lot of autism—he uses his brain to be smart."
There is still a lot of explaining, understanding, and maturing that needs to happen. There is a lot more that I want him to know about Autism and Jack. However, he's seven years old and I'm happy to see that some of my message is getting through.
Jean writes at her personal blog, Stimeyland; at her Washington Times Communities column, Autism Unexpected; and her autism events and information site for Montgomery County, Maryland, AutMont. You can also find her on Twitter as @Stimey.