All three kids packed in the van and we’re off to the high school to pick up a special boy I’ve known for 13 years, since he was 3. Someone we consider part of our family and that the boys have known since the day they were born, who , to honour the family’s privacy (not that they would mind either way) I will refer to as “Marvin” in borrowing of one of his moms’ many nicknames for him, “Messy Marvin”.
I hop out at the high school and after bugging him until he finally gives me a hello, we load him and his things into the van where we continue the rest of our conversation.
“How was school today”
“Yes, how was school?”
“Oh yes, you went on the bus. What did you do at school?”
“Yes, but what did you do AT school?”
“School. Gym!” Even if he has not had gym that day, he will respond “gym” because that’s what he’s done every day, that’s what gets him out of answering any more questions, and because that’s his favourite class in school. I believe that in his mind, even if he didn’t have gym, he thinks he should’ve, which therefore makes it worth mentioning, which is why I let it slide, every time.
He’s excited today! We’re in for a fun afternoon! As we pull out of the school parking lot he twists his hands in the air above his head, jerking his body back and forth in a dance all his own, letting out a few jibber jabber noises and high pitched “eeeeeee’s”.
“Oooooh, you had a good day today, didn’t you! Did you have a good walk?” It was sunny and I saw his T.A. come back with him from outside, so I know they would’ve taken him for a walk, just as I know he hears me, even though he gives no acknowledgment. Our conversations are based on a lot of assumptions.
“Did you have a good walk Marvin? Say ‘yes, I had a good walk’”.
He complies quietly and continues his dance.
I noticed Kiefer watching our exchange quite closely. It’s been alot quieter than normal in the back seat. Normally the boys would be going crazy right now with Marvin being this animated! They love to run around the house waving their hands in the air and yelling “eeeeeeeeee!”, or collapse into fits of giggles at how funny Marvin is, or ask me “supper, supper, supper, supper, supper, supper, supper?”, just like Marvin does. To them, he is the funniest teenager they have ever met!
So why the silence now?
Finally I hear Kiefer quietly ask, “Mom, Marvin’s not like us, is he?” I felt my eyes immediately start to fill up with tears. It could have been an over-tired-up-half-the-night-with-baby reaction, but when did my baby boy grow up? Did I miss it? In that quick moment, he seemed older than his 5 year.
A long pause. “That’s right Kiefer, he’s different than us.” How do you explain autism to a 5 and 3 year old? How do you make it simple enough, yet answer enough questions that they don’t ask 100 more?
So I taught them the word “autism”. How Marvin’s brain is a little different than ours. How his body sometimes doesn’t listen to his brain or will tell him different things than ours would. How different things excite him than excite the boys. Like wind. Flashing lights. Noises. I taught them that even though Marvin acts different, he’s still the same as they are. We talked about things that excite the boys – swimming, new toys, going to the park…
“And what do you do when you’re excited?” I asked.
“Jump up and down!” they tell me. “Clap!”
“Flap my arms!” Keyon yells.
“That’s right,” I said, “and what does Marvin do when he’s excited?”
“Go EEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEE and wave his hands!”
I think they got it. Though they are the same as Marvin, their brains tell them to do different things than his does. That kids with autism are made a little bit different than we. That though they may want to say something, their mouth won’t always let them. How their bodies feel things different than ours do. Like how wind gets Marvin so excited, it’s like he wants to fly with his hands and yell “eeeeeee” with excitement.
And as they sat in silence to contemplate these things, Marvin danced away.
Keyon couldn’t contain it anymore and let a giggle escape.
Kiefer cried out defensively, “Don’t laugh Keyon, he’s just different.”
Some more silence.
Another giggle escaped. The innocence of a 3 year old who’s eyes only see Marvin as a funny teenager.
“Don’t laugh! His brain is just different than ours, Keyon.” Kiefer tries to explain again.
Tears again. A little overtired, a little bit of sorrow at seeing a little of my 5 year olds’ innocence disappear, mixed in with a little bit of pride of my boy defending someone who needs defending.
I will explain to them later the difference between laughing with Marvin and having fun, or laughing at someone and making fun of them. For now, I will just hold this strange moment of pride and sorrow and let it be.
I watch Kiefer try his best to engage in conversation with Marvin. “How was your day?” “What did you do?” “What’s your favourite class?” “What food do you like?” And when Marvin responded “Pizza!”
I watched Kiefer’s delight as he exclaimed “PIZZA!!! That’s the same as me Mom! We like the same food!”
A proud moment to realize that at least some of what I said had sunk in. A proud moment to see my boy show such compassion and consideration.
A strange moment of pride and sorrow indeed.
This was a day from last month, but I was reminded of it again as "Marvin" was over again today and Kiefer asked if we could take him outside "so he can feel the wind".