Forever Loved: Of An Autistic Child
by Rebecca Laffar-Smith
Three words, unsaid yet heard,
while left unspoken, tell more
stories than a thousand voices
aloft in garbled, off-key song
that warble in a group, but one is silent.
He does not smile along with all his peers.
His head bobs in time to a tune we cannot hear.
His eyes intent but sight snags only
on unknown forces, unseen faces.
All he knows, we do not know.
His peacefulness is like a serene lake
that quivers with a raging torrent
beneath the calm, unblemished surface.
Forgotten, almost, are the hours of tears
and rage and noisy cries of frustration.
Sense unmade for his world is
his own, a world unique;
A place we cannot go,
he cannot leave
where we meet only in the space
between two moments,
What worth is this, a life to live?
To see him grow but linger
in youthfulness, misunderstood.
He may never be like other boys
who play at trucks
and knights in shining armor
riding unseen horses
in the playground.
But he will always be my son
and in his mind such wonders rich
beyond our wildest imaginings.
His beauty, core-deep, tangent
and warming smile
lifts my heart with hope
for future days of joy.
What worth is this, a life to live,
I first published those words eleven years ago. At the time, I didn’t know my son was autistic. At the time he would have been just two and a half years old. My concerns that there was something different about him had been brushed aside, first when he was ten months old by his child health nurse, and again at his two-year-old check up. But I remember watching him as he grew and wondering. And, over the years scenes from this poem haunted me as I saw them play out in real life.
I saw it as the rest of his kindergarten class sung, “aloft in garbled, off-key song that warble in a group,” for their mothers at their special Mother’s Day morning tea. But one was silent.
I saw the “serene lake that quivers” in the silent shutdowns I first really noticed when he was in grade one. One day, he and his older sister had been playing outside with a ball. At one point, he had thrown the ball and accidentally hit her. She was in tears, upset, and responding like any neurotypical nine year old might when ball encounters head. He was silent, curled in the foetal position on the cold tiled floor, unable to speak. It took hours to eventually unpack what had happened and realise that he had become completely overwhelmed by his feelings of guilt and remorse. He was shattered that he had hurt her, and the accident was so minor that she didn’t even have a bruise. But to him, it was the greatest sin to have made his beloved sister cry. His emotions where “a raging torrent beneath the calm”.
Later, I saw it in “hours of tears and rage and noisy cries of frustration”. When he would be so angry that he would stand unmoving, his whole body trembling, as he defied whatever will was not his own. I felt it when I tried to reprimand a stubborn boy by sending him to the naughty corner. He wouldn’t go, so I felt it as I physically carried him, and sometimes held him in place, as he screamed and struggled and cried trying to get away. I remember feeling like the worst mother in the world because I couldn’t control my child. It took me years to learn that everything I was doing then made things worse, not better.
I’ve seen him “riding unseen horses“. I’ve seen him “play at trucks”. I’ve never seem him do either with the “other boys” I once imagined might be his friends. The playground was a lonely place where he did “grow but linger in youthfulness, misunderstood”. He could see how different he was too.
Eleven years ago, I saw my two-year-old son with some sort of future sight. When I wrote this poem, I wrote it with a sense of the mother that loved a son who didn’t seem to fit. I wrote it as a mother who, in a hidden part of her heart was starting to wonder if what she was seeing was autism. But when I wrote this poem I didn’t know. In fact, it took another six years before I was certain (despite his psychologist assuring me I was wrong), and two more before he was finally diagnosed after I asked her, “Can we get the assessment anyway, just to rule it out?”.
But I look back today and wonder at that mother’s insight. I look back wondering at the inner sense that seemed to know before I knew. It’s what drives me to insist parents trust their instincts. Even if you don’t see all the signs, and you can’t check all the boxes, and you’ve got a niggle in your mind that isn’t sure. Somewhere, if you’re asking questions, you also have a niggle in your mind that wonders.
It’s easy to hear others discount your worries with words like, “he’s just lazy” or “children develop at different rates, he’ll get there eventually”. Sometimes it’s well meaning intentions with “it’s just a bit of separation anxiety, he’s fine once you’ve gone” or “you need to make him do his reading every night, it’s clear he’s not trying hard enough”. Let yourself feel frustrated. Let the brush offs feed your anger. You might just need that fuel to keep you fighting. Keep insisting that they listen to you. Trust yourself. Because, even before you’ve seen everything, you’ve seen your child. And you’ve forever loved them.