“He has autism? I never would’ve noticed. He looks so normal.” That’s usually the response I hear when I tell people my son, Norrin, has autism. That’s one of the misconceptions about autism – as if it’s noticeable at first glance. As if “passing for normal” is a compliment.
When Norrin was diagnosed at two years and four months old, I was not surprised. Norrin couldn’t speak, point, wave or clap. He didn’t look me in the eye and he rarely responded to his name. I had prepared myself to hear the words: your child has autism.
But I was not prepared for everything else that comes with autism.
I wasn’t prepared to read a 20-page report filled with all the things my son couldn’t do. I wasn’t prepared to hear that Norrin had the cognitive level of a fourteen-month-old and the language level of a seven-month-old. I was not prepared for the therapists, the waiting lists, the follow-ups, the questions and the stares.
And I certainly was not prepared for Norrin to be thought of as not “normal.”
The days, weeks, months that followed I sat in meetings with special educational professionals and read book after book about autism.
The word that I kept hearing and reading was atypical. Like atypical was this bad thing. So I believed that it was. And “typical” became the goal.
Before I was a mom, I remember thinking about the kind of parent I would be and the kind of child I would raise. When I was pregnant, I imagined all the possibilities of the little life growing inside me. When I gave birth, I worried about breastfeeding and bottles and sleeping through the night.
Not once did I think about disability, therapy or special education. “Normal” was something I took for granted. After Norrin was diagnosed, I realized I had been dreaming the wrong dreams and worrying about all the wrong things.
It’s been seven years since Norrin’s diagnosis. He has come such a long way since his initial evaluation. He can speak, point, wave and clap. He engages in imaginative play. I celebrate every single milestone and accomplishment because I know how hard he’s worked to achieve the things that come so naturally for other kids.
Normal has been redefined for our family.
Normal is having a steady stream of therapists and suing the department of education for appropriate school placement.
Normal is having that appropriate school placement be more than 20 miles away.
Normal is special needs baseball.
Normal is making birthday goodie bags for 6 kids instead of 30+.
Normal is a 12-month-school year.
Normal is hours of talk about LEGO, video games and YouTube videos.
No doubt our life is different from many other families. But it’s the only kind of life we know. Raising a kid with autism is the only normal we know. And the line between atypical and typical is blurred.
As Norrin’s parents, we have learned to focus on all the “normal” things Norrin can do, rather than what he can’t. We have learned to ignore timetables and accept that Norrin will get things in his own time.
Like any other parent, all my husband and I want is for our son to be happy, confident and feel loved.
Norrin makes us laugh, he makes us proud and he inspires us every single day. While our dreams may have changed slightly, we have dreams nonetheless for Norrin and we know his future is full of possibilities.
Like most moms, I have pictures of Norrin plastered all over my desk at work – pictures, where he’s looking and smiling at the camera, with his dimpled cheeks and his eyes bright with excitement. And family pictures at the zoo, at Disney World, at the beach; doing things that normal families do.
Anyone looking at our family photos will may know the number of shots taken to capture that one perfect picture. They may never notice the way I’m holding on, afraid to let go, because he may run away. They may know about the team of therapists we’ve had in and out of our home. Or about the hours of special education services that were required to get Norrin to respond to his name or look at the camera.
All they will know is that they are looking at pictures of a family who looks like any other. A happy, loving, “normal” family. And that is because we are.