A Special Gift

A mother learns to see the world through the eyes of her autistic son.

If you had asked me before, I would have told you that I was living a perfect life. Sitting on carefully selected designer furniture in our custom-built dream home overlooking gentle, rolling Texas hills, I’d have shown you a photograph of my precocious daughter. Right next to it, you’d have seen the photograph of my husband looking blissfully happy, lining up the perfect golf shot. Proudly displayed in our office were two framed diplomas: a law degree and a master’s degree in engineering. I would have been convincing, and you probably would have believed me. Back then, this was how I defined success. Ours was the kind of life that most people dream of. I genuinely believed that this kind of life would bring me true and lasting happiness.

I would have vehemently denied that I had suppressed a certain emptiness, a longing for more meaning and purpose. I would have also denied that I was living in a carefully crafted world where I attempted to control everyone and everything in order to feel safe. I had no way of knowing that our son’s entrance into the world two and a half years after his sister— precisely as we had planned— would begin a journey in which each and everything I possessed would slowly and deliberately slip away from me— and I would barely notice.

Autism Spectrum Disorder – three small words that blew my world apart. He was only 2½, this boy with beautiful blue eyes and blonde, curly hair that we had named Benjamin. Like a small plastic wind-up toy, when he ran he would go and go and go, as if he had been wound up too tightly. He tried to expend all his excess energy at once. The problem was that something just kept winding him up. Etching wide circles into our lawn, he could run non-stop for over three hours, always looking sideways. Aware of the images scooting by, he was unable to focus on them as his gaze locked on to the background, off in the distance. Kicking, screaming, crying and throwing himself on the floor were daily occurrences. Even while watching his favorite videos, he was unable to be still. Jumping on his small trampoline with his gaze locked on the television, he never looked down as sweat dripped from his face on hot Texas days. He was practically nonverbal, except for the occasional grunts, moans and nonsense syllables. Virtually no one else existed in his world— and autism is a life-sentence.

I flew into a panic, then sank into deep despair. This wasn’t how life was supposed to go. You play by the rules and everything is supposed to turn out okay. “It’s all a LIE,” I silently screamed in my head as my life careened out of my control.

I had never written a poem in my life, choosing instead to write technical, factual papers on the law. But one evening as I sat quietly, these words seemed to write themselves:

Guided in our every step
Breathing in each labored breath
I struggled with the burden of knowing
Labels given to his world of silence
But the beautiful face I gaze upon
Could never be seen as withdrawn
To a mother who sees the depth within
In eyes that gaze upon the wind
I know our lives will always differ
From this day forward without a whimper
To see the spirit that’s always been free
One puts away his misery
And follows this where destiny flows
Down any path my beautiful boy goes.

When I awoke the next morning, I knew that my struggle did not center on the quality of Benjamin’s life. He could find pure bliss in the breaking of the waves, or the passing of the morning school bus. No, I was afraid of having a child who took the “short bus” to school. That morning, I acknowledged that Benjamin was autistic and vowed that I would love and accept him whether he ever saw any improvement or not.

By this point in my life, I had come to the conclusion that everything in my life, good and bad, happened to me for a reason. I knew that adversity had been my best teacher. Clinging to this hope like a drowning woman, I made the decision to surrender this situation to a higher power. Instinctively knowing that my mortal self was out of its league, I pleaded for a higher understanding of his condition. I knew that he had been given this specific set of circumstances for a reason. I would not wish him to be “normal” for my own convenience or to appease my own fears. I was given an answer: I must learn enough about Benjamin’s world to see if he could be coaxed into mine. Then, he could teach me about his.

I discarded my dream job like yesterday’s rubbish. Benjamin became my entire world— the most important case of my life.

The more time I spent alone with my little boy, watching and observing him over the course of many months, the more I began to realize that his world wasn’t a bad one. His world seemed, at times, much preferable to mine. Sometimes I longed to be lost with him in his world. He was living each day, extracting the richness of each moment, without worry or guilt. He had no need to spend years practicing meditation with the ultimate goal of being able to lose all sense of self and achieve inner peace and tranquility. This was his ordinary state of being. He experienced art and music with all his senses and his entire physical body, while I could only feel the energy in the very edges of my consciousness.

He moved us so deeply that we unwittingly, but willingly, began a spiritual trek first across the country, then around the world. Since it was no longer necessary to own a place to stash acorns, we sold our home and moved to California, where I felt he would thrive. Then, when the opportunity arose to move to South Australia, our automobiles joined the other ghosts of our former lives as they were sold to friends and family. This small boy has taught us much about our choices, fears and priorities.

Today, Benjamin is a sensitive, loving, caring and playful little boy. He runs though the school playground with his “normal” peers across the parched grass of South Australia. His teachers understand his ability to “read” the emotional states of others. He hugs his favorite teachers, special friends and the trees that line the parklands. He sometimes speaks about what he is feeling. We all know that Benjamin will never be “normal,” and that is perfectly acceptable. He has taught us that all people have something profound to offer.

Before Benjamin, I was seeking to find only what appears on the outside, but this empty, elusive world held no comfort for me. I have now found an inner fortitude, an internal strength, a mighty fortress. When I began to seek out what existed beyond daily, physical survival, I realized that my inner fortress had always been there. My fears had just completely obscured my awareness of it. This expanded awareness is wrapped around my old awareness, enriching and enhancing it.

My son has given me the gift of feeling life in all its intensity. My new passions are describing his world and living the fearless existence he’s shown me. Each personal discovery seems to release Benjamin from the limitations of his own condition— an agreement I believe we made together in some other time and place, formed long ago in the shadow of our memories. Our lives will always be inexplicably, and tightly bound together. As I’ve let go of ideas, beliefs, physical possessions and even places that I mistakenly believed comprised my identity, my reward has been an understanding of his world of feeling, relationships, healing and compassion for others. One small boy, not yet 6 years old, embracing his purpose and gently leading us to the discovery of our own.