There’s a lot of things that come easy to other kids that will always be a struggle for my son.
Because my son Max is on the autism spectrum, things that are second nature for his peers will require him to work twice as hard just to keep up with them.
This includes things most kids will take for granted, such as learning to tie their shoes (thank God for Velcro and slip-on technology), understanding the value of money (Max has very little concept of this — and doesn’t much care for material goods, anyway) and how to act in certain social situations (this is one of the biggest challenges facing most everyone with autism).
As you might imagine, if simple tasks such as those are a challenge for Max and other kids with autism, you can only imagine what a nightmare regular schoolwork can sometimes be. While he excels at things that require rote memorization — he has a 100 percent grade in spelling for the entire year — it’s a little bit more of a struggle when it comes to things like comprehending abstract ideas and concepts.
Max’s math homework has become a family affair, as my wife and I both have learned how much fourth-grade math has changed in the past 35 years (well, only 30 years for my lovely and ageless wife) and how it’s even more unpleasant than we remember it being the first time around. His school assignments have become group projects, as we do our best to try to put him on equal footing with everyone else.
Of course, it’s not just school subjects, either. Playing baseball, basketball, football or any other sport will never be as easy for Max as it is for other kids. Just keeping his interest long enough for a simple game of toss and catch is often an exercise in futility. For the two years he played T-ball, his grandfather and I both put in countless hours just teaching him how to do things like hold the baseball bat correctly and put his glove on by himself. Heck, we went though at least half a season before we figured out he was left-handed.
The other kids on the team took notice of Max’s skill level and some of them made snide comments that they knew Max would never hear and thought I would never hear. But I did. And it hurt.
It’s safe to say the majority of kids will be able to do things easily that will require incredible amounts of effort for Max and other kids like him. That doesn’t make kids with autism lesser, mind you, just different.
Because for all that Max struggles with now and will continue to struggle with for the rest of his life, there’s one thing I know will always come easier to my son that it seemingly does for others.
No one will ever have to teach Max how to love.
No matter what grades Max gets in his scholastic career, he’ll always graduate at the top of his class when it comes to compassion and empathy. The kid doesn’t know the meaning of the word envy. Whenever I ask him about his school day when I pick him up every afternoon, the first thing he tells me is what kids were absent that day and that he hopes they feel better soon. He rarely, if ever, focuses on his own successes, but is quick to tell me about all of his classmates and what they accomplished that day. If you ask him who his best friend at school is, he can’t tell you.
He loves them all.
His soul is pure and innocent in every way, unsullied by the harsh reality of the world in which he lives. Every day begins with him telling his mother, sister and me how much he loves us and — no matter what transpires through the course of the day — ends with a kiss goodnight and a reminder of how much he loves us.
I’ve been thinking about all of that a lot lately, with the most recent (in a seemingly endless string) school shooting and the subsequent acrimony on both sides of the political aisle, of the best way to handle the violence that has become all-too commonplace in our country.
All of this has been very hard to explain to my son, who simply can’t grasp the concept of intentionally hurting someone. He has never done a mean thing to anyone in is life.
I wish I had a viable answer on how to stop all this madness. But people who are far smarter than I have been duking it out for decades in the political arenas, never to come up with any answers. Sometimes I do wonder, though, if maybe we are looking for answers in all the wrong places.
Maybe we should start looking to those who society sometimes tends to leave behind.
Maybe all you really need is love.
Reach David Fong at firstname.lastname@example.org; follow him on Twitter @thefong