How to talk to my son about what makes him different
In the absence of a formal diagnosis, knowing how best to talk to my son about what makes him different is tricky. In this personal essay, what starts as a stressful event at school leads to a pretty revolutionary conversation between us.
Credit: ©sewcream / Adobe Stock
How to talk to my son about what makes him different
On a frigid Tuesday morning, my oldest son shuffles into the kitchen dressed in his favorite t-shirt. Most days he has speech, occupational therapy, or small group at school, but today he’s going on a field trip with the rest of third grade.
I glance at the time. 7:40am. Five minutes left to get him in the car.
“It’s cold today,” I say. “Dress warm and take your coat. Hat and gloves, too.”
A pained look overcomes him. “Mommy, you know I don’t like my winter coat.”
I knew this was coming. Clothes are like food. They have to be just right. And just right this week is not the same as just right last week.
Trudging through my own morning fog, I summon a cheery voice. “Maybe you could take your winter stuff in a backpack. You never know. A friend might get cold.”
Unimpressed, he leans against the counter. “Mommy, nobody wants to wear my coat.”
Most days I choose my battles, but today I beg. “Will you take it anyways…please? I’d hate to see you get cold.”
He considers my words. Studies my face. “Okay, fine. I’ll bring my backpack.”
Potential morning crisis number-one, averted. This is our normal, and he doesn’t know any different.
I don’t have a label to convey my son’s differences. He’s been told that his body has a hard time getting B-vitamins into his brain, which is why he takes a special pill. But there’s more to the story.
Despite drastic improvements in recent years, my son has lingering challenges. His speech is articulate, but halting and slow. Easily frustrated when learning new skills, he thrives on routine and relishes order. He craves social interaction but needs work on inserting himself into play. Because his motor skills haven’t caught up with kids his age, we stick to individual sports like karate and swimming. Strategies for managing high functioning autism work best for helping him navigate the world, but the closest we’ve come to a medical diagnosis is “maybe.” In short, my son is so close to neurotypical that his differences are often mistaken for misbehavior, and his extra needs go unmet.
For now, I’m his advocate, a position akin to a part-time job versus the full-time gig it used to be. I slip fruits and vegetables into foods he least expects. I scour his days for potential meltdowns, heading them off or preparing him to cope. One day he’ll need to be his own advocate and understand his own triggers. So, the older he gets, the question becomes: what do I tell my son about himself? And how?
Later that afternoon, I scan my unopened emails. My eyes stop on a message from my son’s teacher. The subject line reads Field Trip. I hold my breath. This is not a message to tell me my son aced a math test or showed kindness to a friend. It’s the other kind. The kind with the principal cc’d. I exhale and touch to view the rest.
Students were allowed a water bottle and lunch box on the field trip, but no backpacks. My son refused to accept the rule and wore his teacher down until, in the interest of time, she gave in. At the park, the class found a tire swing, where my son hit a student twice with a stick. When another student told him to stop, a shoving match ensued. Thankfully, the teacher was nearby and stopped the argument before anyone got hurt. But for safety reasons, my son’s father or I will need to chaperone the next field trip.
I drop the phone and hold my head. After our struggle at home, I can only imagine my son’s reaction to being told he may not bring his backpack to the park. As for the playground incident, this isn’t the first. Swings are especially troublesome. At occupational therapy, he has the swing to himself. At home, he shares a swing with his brother, but we have rules and a timer.
My thoughts race years into the future, to a time when he breaks down, and I’m not there to explain. There’s no teacher to de-escalate. Police get called instead. My pulse quickens. Then I reel myself back to the now. Third grade. Elementary school. Plenty of time for practice.
Halfway through folding the laundry that evening, my partner is still at work and my youngest son is playing in the backyard.
“Hey, can we talk about something?” I jump on a rare moment of privacy.
My oldest plops on the couch. “Okay.”
I reach for a shirt and try to act natural. “I heard from your teacher today.”
Rising to his feet, he paces the floor. “Mommy, I’m sorry to tell you this but…there was a new playground, and it was my turn for the tire swing. They wouldn’t let me on. So, I hit somebody with a stick. Twice.”
I place the folded shirt on the gray ottoman between us. “Sweetie, it’s never okay to use your hands to hurt a person.” I regret my word choice immediately. This doesn’t match his karate mantra: If somebody wants to fight, walk away. If they try to touch you, block them. If they keep hitting, protect yourself.
“But Mommy, I was protecting myself. They hit me with a tree branch. See.” He proudly displays a scratch on his wrist.
“I’m sorry that happened. But next time you need to get an adult to help.” I watch as confusion etches itself across his face.
“Why?” he says.
Carefully, slowly, I select my words. “Sometimes you see things differently than other people. You might think you’re doing the right thing, but other people might think something different. And that can get you in big trouble one day.”
His eyes turn red and watery. “Mommy, I don’t like when you say I’m different. I feel like a normal kid.”
His words undo me. “Oh sweetie, I don’t mean it like that.” I sit and rub his back. “There are lots of ways you are normal.” Unsure of how to proceed, I take a deep breath. “Every single person in your class has something that makes them different. It’s normal.”
Tears stream down his face. “Mommy, none of the kids like me.”
My heart breaks into a million pieces.
He sucks in a series of rapid, sharp breaths and goes on. “Everybody else is faster at writing than me.”
“Hey, that’s a great example of a difference.” I see a silver lining and move in. “Writing is harder for you. But guess what…when you get older, you’ll use a computer and learn to type. Then writing won’t be so hard.”
He smiles, then forces a frown.
“Do you want to hear about my differences?” I say.
“I already know, Mommy. You moved a lot and nobody liked you,” he says.
“There’s more though. Can I tell you my differences?” I poke him in his side. “Can I?”
He sighs. “I didn’t say no, Mommy.”
“Okay, well, my brain doesn’t make as many chemicals as other people’s. That’s why I get sad and tired sometimes.”
He eyes me sideways. “I never see you sad.”
“That’s because I hide it.” I flash him a sly smile. “Well, I don’t hide it. I take a pill like you do, except mine’s a different color. And I’ve worked really hard with doctors to learn how to make my differences easier.”
He grins right as my youngest barges in from the backyard. “What are you talking about?” says my youngest.
My oldest son’s face hardens. “Go away.”
“We were just finishing a private conversation,” I say. “You don’t have to go away.”
Later that night, my sons mount their bar stools in the kitchen for dinner.
My oldest tackles his broccoli first and moves counterclockwise to his rice. “Mommy, you know what’s different about me?”
“What’s that?” I say.
He stares straight ahead. “I can see two things at once.”
Wondering if he’s referring to peripheral vision, I prod. “Can you explain what you mean?”
“When I look at something, I see two things. One in front of my eyes, and a different one in my head.”
“Oh!” I say. Maybe I’ve underestimated what he already knows. “That’s called being a visual thinker. I bet you think in pictures a lot.”
“Yep,” he says.
Stabbing a slice of sausage, my youngest pipes up. “Well, I see things out the sides of my eyes.”
“Cool,” I say. “That’s called peripheral vision.”
My oldest interjects. “I’m faster at math than most people.”
I laugh. “You’re lucky to have that difference.”
Through the rest of the night, they volley their differences at random intervals, leaving me to ponder the minor miracle unfolding in my home. We grow up so worried we’re different. That we’re not okay. Then one day, or maybe over the course of a few years, we find out, yes, we are different, and instead of our worlds caving in on us like we expect, an incredible weight lifts from our psyches. We’re different, and that’s normal.
At bedtime, I kiss my boys each on the cheek. My oldest hugs me especially tight and whispers into my ear. “Mommy, you’re the best.”
I smooth his covers and turn off the light. “I’m so proud to have you as my son.”
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Melissa Gopp is a creative nonfiction writer living in Northeast Florida. She is passionate about using her writing and experiences to help people navigate life's challenges.