And so this week’s moment of happiness despite the news.
When it comes to shocking moments in my life, being told that my child was autistic and would likely never speak and would look at me like I was a block of wood probably ranks highest. I remember the doctor telling me, and I looked back at him and said, “No, she’s not.” Olivia, playing at my feet that day, tapped the toe of my sneaker and looked up at me and smiled.
In her eyes, I was not a block of wood.
But we all knew she was different. The inconsolable, out-of-control, constant crying when she was an infant. The touch sensitivity, the difficulty switching to table foods, the repetition of playing with the same toys the same way every day, only allowing in space for a new toy after the old toys were taken care of. The need for routine. The not speaking. The absolutely profound temper tantrums and meltdowns that left her physically and emotionally exhausted, and her parents and siblings right alongside.
The early years were difficult. There were times I had to put her safely in her room, shut the door, leave her to scream and throw herself around, and I would go sit on the couch and shake.
But you know what? Always, through all of it, there was the tapping on my shoe and the smile. There was launching herself into groups of people because she just wanted to connect so much. There was speaking, the incorrect words with emphasis on the wrong syllables, words learned through television, scripts repeated and repeated until she connected the correct words and she found that their meaning matched what she wanted.
And that smile.
Certain moments will always stand out.
Being told our daughter was autistic. (No, she’s not.)
The moment of acceptance. (Yes, she is.)
Telling her preschool teacher that we believed that Olivia would live a normal life, go to college, have a great job, do great things, and receiving a condescending pat on the shoulder and a “Well, we can always dream.” The instant and complete rage I felt at this woman who worked with Olivia for three years and still didn’t know who she was.
And the moment right after when I realized that the only thing that mattered was that we knew. And that “we” includes Olivia. We all knew who she was. We know who she is.
The kindergarten teacher who was the first to say, “My gosh, she’s amazing.” The first grade teacher who said the same thing. The second, third, fourth and fifth grade teachers who became her chorus. The aides. The special ed teachers. The occupational therapists and speech therapists.
The connection with her violin. Coming home after seeing an assembly where a quartet played and announcing she wanted a violin. No doubt in her voice. “I can play.”
The connection to writing.
The connection to art.
She is. It’s not that she overcame autism, or burst through it, or destroyed it. It’s just a part of who she is. She has dark brown hair, the most beautiful brown eyes, a smile that never quits, and she’s autistic. We don’t fight it. It’s part of the Olivia package. We incorporate it.
Olivia finished her freshman year in college this past spring. It was a year filled with excitement and possibility, then chaos and uncertainty as the pandemic set in. Yesterday, while I was on the phone with a client, she forwarded me an email from her college, saying that she made the Dean’s List. In her freshman year. In a chaotic, unprecedented, out-of-routine year for a young woman who thrives on routine.
Dean’s List. 3.9 GPA.
I was on the phone and I couldn’t shout. I couldn’t cheer. I couldn’t stamp my feet and clap my hands and just howl. Until I finished with my client.
I hung up the phone and shouted, “Michael!”
He was napping on the couch. “What?”
“Olivia made the Dean’s List!”
Olivia flew up the stairs. And there was that smile. She beamed at me and I said, “This is WONDERFUL!” and she said, “I don’t really know what it means.”
And I began to laugh and laugh.
This girl, this young woman, hit a difficult goal without even knowing she was doing it. She just did it. Just like tapping my shoe and smiling at me at the exact moment when I was told I’d be a block of wood.
“We can always dream.”
Damn straight. We always will. We know who she is. She knows who she is. And that’s the most important thing.
And yes, that helps. Despite. Anyway.