Soren was an adorable baby and toddler. I didn't really register that fact at the time; acknowledging his beauty seemed boastful, and certainly all mothers think their children are beautiful, right? But looking back, I see now how darn cute he was, and how his cherubic little cheeks and happy smile enchanted strangers and wooed family and friends.
Yet the waning of cuteness comes with a cost for a child with autism. Cuteness excuses lots of atypical behaviors. A chubby little 4-year-old who flaps or lies down in the middle of Safeway is odd but adorable. The 9-year-old who does the same things is outright weird, and a 15-year-old who might do the same things might seem just plain transgressive.
All parents mourn their child's babyhood to a degree, and they chant that (really annoying) adage about enjoying each day, for they grow up so fast. But losing my child's toddlerhood and young childhood takes a toll on him and on us in ways I wasn't anticipating.
Nine is awfully close to puberty. And male puberty is perceived as a bit scary in this society, especially when a young man acts in atypical ways that might seem threatening. I especially worry about Soren's puberty when it comes to the police. With a dad who is 6'8", Soren is bound to be tall. And he is bound to continue many atypical behaviors. And there's that whole nonverbal thing. If my big kid acts in ways that are not "normal," will the police recognize that that difference stems from his autism? Or will his difference make him a target (or a victim)?
It's easy to have compassion for the littlest ones. They are fragile, malleable--savable from their disability, perhaps. But an older child or adult with a disability is a strong reminder that the disability didn't go away, and that we don't really know what to do with disability--combined with puberty, sexuality, and physical strength--when it's in adults. It's as if the only way we know how to deal with disabled people is by infantilizing them, treating them as helpless little adorable babies. Our model doesn't work when it comes to disabled adults. We know that the pity and protectiveness that worked with small children don't work with adults, but we're not sure how then to relate to disability in its matured version.
Today I have a plea for those reading this. Keep that empathy and gentleness that you feel when you see a 2-year-old with an obvious difference. But add in extra respect and understanding as that adorable toddler becomes a strapping young man. Use an age-appropriate regard--without pity or fear--that you'd use for any 9-year-old, or 15-year-old. Or 54-year-old. Because in this house, we'll be there sooner than we think.