The worst day of my life was finding out my son was autistic.
The best days of my life have been watching that little boy grow, learn, excel and defy the odds at every turn.
In 2009, a team of medical professionals confirmed what my wife and I had suspected for several months; our son Max was on the autism spectrum. At the time, we were overwhelmed with questions, doubt and — more than anything else — fear. That’s the problem with autism — there are no injections or magic pills to cure it, there are very few answers to the mountain of questions and there certainly are no guarantees.
We never knew if our baby boy would be able to speak. Or read. Or have normal interactions with society. We had no idea what his future would hold. Truthfully, nine years later, we still don’t know the answer to that last one. We don’t know if he’ll be able to go to college, get married or hold down a “regular” job.
So we try not to worry too much about those things. When dealing with a disorder that has no cure, you can’t worry about the future. You have to take things day by day and rejoice in every single victory, no matter how big or small.
And lately, Michelle and I have watched our son pile up some pretty monumental victories.
Our son did learn to speak. Through some pretty hard work — and a host of incredible teachers, tutors, family members and friends — Max was able to find his voice. Sure, he may use that voice to repeat, word-for-word, the same episode of the cartoon “Phineas and Ferb” for hours on end (it’s an autism thing), but considering he didn’t speak his first true words until he was almost 4, every syllable that comes out of his mouth is as sweet as the most heavenly chorus.
Earlier this month, Max was able to use that voice to read the essay he wrote at his DARE graduation. In his essay, Max wrote about some of the challenges he faces in making choices, yet another effect of autism. He talked about how DARE classes have helped teach him how to make good choices in his life. Michelle and I may have helped him organize his essay and corrected the grammar, but ultimately, the thoughts all sprung from his incredible mind. Sometimes it’s just a matter of finding the right key to unlock a treasure chest.
Max’s essay was selected as one of the best in his fifth-grade class and he was given the opportunity to read it at his graduation. He was a little nervous about standing in front of a crowd and reading his essay — which doesn’t make Max much different from folks who aren’t on the autism spectrum — but he was able to conquer his fears, stand before his peers and tell his story in a clear, confident voice.
As you might have guessed, Max has learned to read, which probably was our second biggest fear after him learning to speak. Not only has he learned to read, but he’s become an incredible speller — spelling fits into his ability to memorize things and his repetitive nature. He’s one of the top spellers at Heywood Elementary School and, last week, he was selected to participate in the school spelling bee.
Once again, he had a little stage fright — again, I don’t know a whole lot of people with or without autism who wouldn’t have been — but he again was able to conquer his fears and make a respectable showing. He didn’t win the spelling bee, but that probably wasn’t the point. There he was, standing on stage, doing something you would expect of a “typical” kid.
At the end of this school year, Max will leave the comfort of Heywood Elementary School — where we have been blessed to meet some of the most talented and compassionate educators and staff members — and move on to bigger, and more challenging, things. Quite frankly, the thought of our son leaving such a warm, caring environment where he has excelled beyond all of our wildest dreams is a little scary.
My wife and I already have talked at length about how hard leaving Heywood will be for Max. It’s going to be a bad day for us.
But that’s OK. If there’s one thing our son has taught us, it’s that so many more good days are ahead of us.
Troy’s very own David Fong appears on Thursdays in Miami Valley Today. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org; follow him on Twitter @thefong