By Leora Schachter
Before I became a mother, I tried to prepare myself for the awesome responsibility of molding and teaching another human being. But I was totally unprepared for how much I would learn from my children, and the way they would mold me.
At 3 months, my son Noah wasn't staring at me like other babies stared at their moms. He was late to smile and, it seemed to me, reluctant.
"He's a serious baby," I said. "He's like an old soul."
Later, he didn't point. He didn't walk until about 16 months. And, as a toddler, he had a curious habit of using a grown-up's hand to touch things. He didn't speak until about 19 months, and used words in unusual ways.
These issues nagged me, but I preferred to be soothed by my husband's reassuring words. "Lee, don't worry," he said, downplaying my concerns about our son's development. "Noah is fine. He's perfect. Stop beating yourself up."
Then one day, the special needs teacher at Noah's preschool cornered me, and my heart dropped to the floor. At age 2-1/2, Noah wasn't talking in class, except to repeat what others said to him. This teacher told me she often found herself drawn to his needs in the classroom. She suggested testing.
I knew she was right, but I had been unable to act until I heard it from a professional. In retrospect, Noah was teaching me my first lesson: Trust myself and listen to that little voice deep within; it doesn't know how to lie.
The "A Word"
When the early intervention professionals who tested Noah arrived at my home, one of them asked, "Are you familiar with the term 'autism'?" - as casually as asking where the bathroom was.
Suddenly, everything in the room became small and seemed to be moving away from me. Sure, I had heard of autism. It meant a life spent in institutions, weekend visits, strange, repetitive movements, no emotional feedback, and if you were lucky, savant qualities in what we would otherwise call an "idiot." That's what I knew of autism. Rainman.
All of this flashed through my mind as these professionals sat in my den, calmly talking to me about it while the floor beneath my feet opened up and I slid quietly into shock.
They couldn't be talking about my son, I thought. Noah talks. Noah plays. Noah loves. This can't be autism. I can't be having this conversation. I wanted the world to disappear so that none of this would matter. And yet, I knew. I understood.
Navigating with Noah
Noah is now 7 years old and in second grade. He rides a bike and has a green belt in Tae Kwon Do. At school, he gets speech therapy, occupational therapy, adapted physical education, and he's part of a social pragmatics group.
We've invested a lot in "teaching" Noah to be like his typical peers, yet he's taught me what it means to really accept someone for who he is.
When something is exciting to Noah, he often trembles and twitches while simultaneously stiffening up his whole body. Bending forward at the waist to get a better look, his legs remain perfectly straight while his arms flap and jerk at his sides.
I used to try to stop this behavior. "Quiet hands," I'd remind him. "Other kids might be scared of you if they see you doing that. Try not to do it at school."
One day, we were baking, mixing ingredients in a bowl that were visually intriguing for Noah. His arms started to flap and he bent over to stare more intently into the bowl. I looked at him and laughed. "You must be so excited by this, Noah. Your arms are flapping so hard it looks like you might fly!" I laughed, copying his movements.
Noah stopped the twitching and a huge smile crossed his face while he held my gaze. We both burst out laughing, and then continued to mix together without the twitching and jerking.
That's when I understood for the first time what it means to completely accept another human being. I acknowledged Noah and celebrated him - differences and all - and he clearly felt it. I joyfully entered his world instead of trying to shame him into mine. It's something I try to do as often as I can now.
A Fine Line
We're careful as Noah matures and becomes aware of his differences. We still need to teach him right and wrong, what's OK and what isn't. But we also need to accept, cherish and celebrate his differences, too. Otherwise, we risk giving him the message that he isn't lovable unless he behaves the way we want him to.
For Noah, always conforming would be denying a major part of who he is. And we would be denying ourselves the pleasure of truly knowing and learning from our son by trying to "fix" him all the time.
He'll always be our strange, gentle, shining little guy. We've learned that each child, autistic or typical, is a unique gift. Instead of always teaching him, we try to remember to keep our hearts and minds open to learning things from him, too.