A long time ago, in a galaxy that now seems far, far away, there was a young boy. When he was a baby he was happy and healthy. Passersby would comment at the big smile he exuded. But when he moved from infancy to toddlerhood, things seemed to change. His smile disappeared, his eye contact diminished, his words vanished, his play consisted of lining things up, and the dreams of his father hit a tailspin. There was a name for what had happened. Well, there were many names: “pervasive developmental disorder,” “sensory integration disorder,” “Asperger’s syndrome.” It could be labeled however one preferred, he could be classified with whatever was useful, but his father’s only child was autistic.
The school aged boy was impaired and afraid when it came to making friends. He was too egocentric and viscerally scared of being rejected or taken advantage of. He hated school, and thought himself stupid because schools didn’t accommodate to his ways of being and being smart. He was, however, smart enough to lower expectations, for his teachers and his parents. He projected himself, first as an alien, then as a robot, to embody his struggles with emotions, vulnerabilities, being touched and feeling different. But he also showed a self-aware sense of humor that the “experts” would consider impossible for someone with autism.
He went through social skills programs, which were intended to do what one of his therapists offered as the secret for all of us who weren’t blessed with the social instinct, to learn to fake it until it becomes habitual. In school he had floating teachers with the intention at least of helping him stay focused and less frustrated. At his elementary school graduation, thanks in part to one caring teacher, he was bestowed with two awards for the progress he had made, the President’s Award for Academic Achievement and the Attorney General’s Triple C Award for “character, commitment and courage.” These awards are given to children with special needs. That wasn’t enough.
In middle school he had two very insightful and caring guidance counselors, who helped him with his organization and his mood. He was in a special social skills group, but he wanted out, telling his father that the other children were more impaired than he was and that he was being pulled away from socializing with his friends at lunch to be taught how to socialize. So his father came in to get the perspective of the one guidance counselor about his son’s need for this program. His father will never forget the day, or the tears, when he was told that his son didn’t need it, that he was, for want of a better word since all of these labels are terribly arbitrary, a “normal” kid.
But his grades still suffered. He told his parents to never expect better than a C from him at best, continuing his efforts to lower expectations, for them and likely for himself. He was convinced that his future lay with the physical, not the mental, and once he realized he wasn’t equipped to become an athlete, he figured he would get some job with his hands. By now, though, his intelligence, which IQ tests and schools had denied, and even his father, who had always expected a genius of a child, had been cautious about believing, was undeniable.
Then something happened mid-high school. It’s unclear whether some mysterious switch went on or his practical mind told him that now his grades would actually count. And so they soared. C’s and D’s started becoming the supposedly impossible A’s and B’s. The teen who had said he neither liked nor was good at anything started to recognize and follow his interests and talents in music, sound and media. Deciding to enroll in the Radio and Television Production program at Suffolk, he took their placement tests, and not only didn’t he have to take any developmental courses, his scores were among the highest ever seen. Dean’s Lists, Academic Achievement Awards and Honors’ Societies would follow. And meanwhile, he was becoming a social star, making a circle of friends that remains staggeringly wide. From then to now, he can’t seem to go anywhere without being recognized, and not just for his hair, and flocked to.
After graduating Suffolk with honors, he chose Five Towns College and its Audio Recording program, where his honor-level grades have continued, as have the growth of his brilliance, sociability and maturity. The boy who wouldn’t even read a paragraph in school was now a young man who was picking up weighty philosophy books on his own. The boy who wouldn’t write more than a sentence or two in school was now helping his father with his writing and working on a book of his own. Looking back, maybe he was right about being an alien. He’s like one of those creatures that emerged in some evolved state from a pod. He still has subtle vestiges of whatever one wants to label him with, and can still be a pain in the ass, but, in much larger part, he defies labels and expectations. Today my son graduates, on the doorstep of greater, no, great things, and this recognition is for him, what he has accomplished, proven and become. One thing has never changed: he is very loved.
P.S. This is from 2019. He’s now in Law School. He has read philosophy, economics and politics extensively. He’s surpassed me, which is the hope of every father, I’d like to think. He may even run for office someday. But that’s another story.