Updated: Dec 26, 2022
Autistic kids are Polarizing Not only have I had the pleasure and the privilege to have a wonderful son (technically a "step" but that is just a technicality) who happens to be autistic, as such, I have been around a lot of special needs kids. These kids bring out the best or the worst in people…but rarely the middle.
Go to a Special Olympics event and you see some amazing people. Not just the athletes, but people that are supporting their kids, their family and neighbors. It is truly a celebration. It is beyond wonderful, and I understand why it is addictive to volunteer at such events. The joy, happiness and ebullience feeds your soul. The big grins of the parents and families…as well as friends that came to cheer is delightful beyond words. If you want to experience pure joy, just hang around the podium. It is a little piece of heaven. Our mail carrier is a Special Olympics coach. My guess is that he is not a rich man but nothing stops him from teaching swimming and basketball. When I thank him for his efforts, he gets a big cheesy grin and says, “that is all about fun.” Thanks to my boy’s Special Olympics swimming “competition” I know precisely what he means. The happiness and joy are nearly universal. When hundreds of people had to wait at a swimming event because my boy, Harlen, left before the gun…and would NOT stop, no matter how we yelled, there were smiles and nods, not frowns, or rebukes. We said that he wanted his money’s worth, like a golfer that got those extra strokes. Yes, he got two first place medals and he couldn’t care less. He loved the swimming, the happy environment and being cheered. Everywhere we go, Harlen has his own tribe and fans. If he isn’t seen with me at stores, even people that I do not know will ask about him. “where’s your boy…it has been a while” or more often “Where’s Harlen?”
Even people that are unsure of how to interact will ask questions. “Can I talk to him?” or “Is he verbal?” The answer to the first is “of course” and the answer to the second is “too damned!” Wait staff are almost universally happy to wait for him to give them his order or for him to spit out "thank you" when they bring him a new half and half tea. Their smiles are genuine and pure...like Harlen. When a business colleague asked me and my lovely bride to dinner I asked, “is it okay if we bring Harlen” and his answer was immediate “I would be disappointed if you didn’t.” Know that Harlen usually brings out the best in people, but sometimes it is the opposite...but that is okay. While most people are welcoming, he has been disowned by “family.” Yes…actually disowned. His mother and I say “great." Those that don’t want to be around him are like a fungus. Their being in his life would be analogous to sharing a 1970 Chateau Mouton Rothchild with a crusty old maid on a temperance kick.
Is it hard to be a special needs parent? Sometimes…absolutely, but certainly no worse than being a parent to any kid. Harlen is a 15-year-old boy and being a pain in the ass comes naturally. Autistic or not, if you take a moment to look, deep down, he is just a kid, just delayed. And he is a sweet kid who is clinging to childhood. And seriously…who can blame him? When I take him to his uncle’s house, especially when all of his sons are home, Harlen is merely part of their pack. They treat him like family. They embrace him and tease him and teach him just like any other kid. It is a truly beautiful thing. As I said, special needs kids can be polarizing but for us, Harlen is a joy. He brings out the best in the only people that matter, and it is our privilege to be part of it.