Christopher’s body filled the doorway, his silhouette backlit by the afternoon sun. He stepped into my office, all legs, shoulders and knees — a signature twelve-year-old. Dirt smeared his forehead and his skin gleamed with sweat. Clutched beneath his right elbow was a dusty basketball. “Mom, did I have autism when I was little?” he said.
This was the moment. The one I’d been dreading for the past seven years.
“What?” I asked. I’d never heard him say the word autism before this day.
“Well… Jonathan has talking teachers just like I did when I was little, and he has autism.” My sister’s son, Jonathan, had recently been diagnosed.
I sat up straight; jolts of electricity pricked my abdomen.
“Do you know what autism is?” I asked. Christopher shook his head no. He was smiling, eager. He had no idea of the enormity of his question, of the disorder he conquered many years ago, the thousands of therapy hours he endured, the endless hospital visits. And he wasn’t aware that, like him, two of his younger siblings had also recovered from autism.
Autism. I’d spent a lot of time contemplating this insidious word. A jumble of letters, a label that carried with it the weight of fear, misunderstanding, and for a lucky few — hope. The word that moved with stealth into our home, taking residence and threatening never to leave. The word that occupied my every thought for long months and years. When did Christopher go from autistic to recovered? I couldn’t pinpoint a moment in time, or argue for certain that either label had meaning any longer.
“Let’s go out for dinner and talk about this? Just you and me.” Christopher nodded.
I found Mike on the back deck, grilling steak on the barbecue. “We need to talk,” I whispered. He looked at me quizzically and I motioned for him to follow me into the house. In his office with the door closed, I told him about my conversation with Christopher. As I spoke, he paced back and forth in the small, cluttered space.
“How would Christopher know to ask that?”
“Well, he knows about Jonathan’s ‘talking teachers.’ And Jonathan has autism.”
“But how did Christopher connect that to himself?”
“I don’t know.”
Mike sat heavily in his chair and glared at the stacks of bills, papers and books on the desk. “I was hoping we wouldn’t have to face this yet. What should we do?”
“We’ve always been honest with the kids. I told him I’d take him to dinner to talk.”
Mike looked up at me. “You should, you will explain it better than I would. But— then what?”
“Well, we have to expect that he might tell people.”
“Shit,” says Mike. We’d been arguing this point for years.
Christopher sat next to me in the passenger seat during the drive to the restaurant. Looking over at him, I envisioned him at age two — a sullen boy with pleading blue eyes. I could still feel see the look of terror on his face when I left him with the therapists for the first time. I could still hear his screams each time the doctor punctured his already-bruised vein with a needle. But the boy who sat next to me now was changed. He was outgoing and charismatic, with a newly deepened voice. He had friends, good health and a passion for life. The contrast was startling.
We sat at a corner table in the mostly empty restaurant. Our drinks arrived and Christopher sipped his lemonade, his eyes never leaving mine. Next to us a Buddha-shaped fountain drizzled water into a bed of earth-colored stones.
“Tell me about the question you asked me earlier,” I said.
“You mean about autism?”
I nodded. “What do you think that means?”
“I’m not sure,” he said, “but I think it means having a hard time learning to talk. Like I did… and Jonathan too. And you need teachers to help you.”
“That’s true. But it’s more than that.”
For the first time I told Christopher about autism. As I spoke, I wished Mike could be here too. When Christopher was first diagnosed, we’d dreamt about telling our son that he’d once had autism and was now recovered. I realized that this time was today. Now.
I spoke to Christopher as if autism hadn’t turned our lives upside down three times over, as if we were merely bystanders who’d watched another family unravel, and then fight like hell to come back. Christopher listened attentively, his expression steady. When the waiter approached for our order, I watched as Christopher deftly request a gluten-casein free meal. He asked for rice noodles and confirmed that there was no cow’s milk in the soup.
He smiled at me when the waiter left. “So that’s why I’ve been on this diet?”
I nodded and explained how we’d kept his body healthy with the special diet and vitamins. I told him about the intensive therapy program that spanned his every waking hour for four long years. I explained how more kids have autism today than before, one in every sixty-eight children, and that it is more common than childhood cancer, juvenile diabetes and pediatric AIDS combined. “It’s rare for a kid to recover from autism,” I said. “Most people would be shocked if they knew you were once autistic.”
“Why don’t kids recover?”
“Lot of reasons. Some families don’t have the money for the therapy, and many don’t know that children can recover.” Dinner arrived and I watched Christopher scoop a fork full of noodles into his mouth. I couldn’t help but admire his obvious love of food, a trait that couldn’t have come from me.
“Mom, do you think I’ll ever be autistic again?” he said.
“I don’t. They’ve studied kids like you — and once a kid recovers, they stay that way. I believe that when you were in therapy, your brain healed itself. After that you were able to learn things just like other kids do.”
Christopher put down his fork. “Do you think every kid with autism could recover if they had the right treatment?”
“Not every kid, but lots of them,” I said. He nodded and his eyebrows moved closer together, creasing his forehead.
“I wonder what Michael will think when I tell him.” Michael was Christopher’s best friend in seventh grade. The two of them spent hours together playing video games and rehearsing their parts in the school play,Bye Bye Birdie.
“I think Michael will understand,” I said, “but it may be hard for others to believe you were once autistic. You might want to be careful who you tell.”
I was sure Michael’s reaction would be a good one, but I couldn’t say the same about the reactions of his parents, or other people that might find out. I’d met many who didn’t believe that it’s possible to recover from autism. “Your children must not have been diagnosed correctly,” they usually said, looking at me as if I’d just announced I was Joan of Arc reincarnated.
“Honey?” I touched Christopher’s hand. “Does knowing this make you feel bad in any way?” I’d worried for years that when he found out about his past, he might see himself as lessened, or damaged in some indefinable way.
Christopher looked at me for a few long moments. “No, it’s the opposite. I feel really good.”
“You do? Why?”
“If I recovered from autism,” he said. “If I can do that, I think I can do just about anything.” Flickering light from the candle threw shadows on his face, and suddenly he was older. A young man with intense eyes, freckled skin and disheveled hair stared at me. Then the grin returned and my boy was back.