Here’s another excerpt from the short story I wrote about autism when I was unable to write about it directly. The only difference between my experience and Marilee’s is that my naysayers and advice givers were family members, which, I think, made it all the more hurtful. I needed support, not ill-informed advice. One of the most important things I could say to those who wonder how to help their loved ones whose child has been diagnosed is to educate yourself about autism and its manifestations. There is so much good information out there—you have no excuse to be ignorant. Another piece of advice? Well, in the immortal words of Thumper, the little rabbit from the movie Bambi:
“If you can’t say somethin’ nice, don’t say nothin’ at all.”
Here’s the excerpt from “Circles:”
Over the next week, Marilee and Dan told friends and family about the diagnosis. Marilee wasn’t sure what she expected or even wanted their reactions to be. She imagined them bringing casseroles, cakes, fried chicken. Maybe coming in to clean her house, wash her dishes. Giving her time to grieve her loss—the loss of the dreams and visions for her child that had begun in her heart with the first stirrings of life in her womb.
But she knew that wouldn’t happen. Women bringing casseroles meant someone was ill, injured, or dead. The death of dreams didn’t count.
But people did come. Not with cakes and soft murmurings of sympathy, but with brisk admonitions and advice. Their next-door neighbor, Lynette, had taken a psychology course at the community college and ever since had borne out the adage that a little knowledge could be a dangerous thing.
“Listen, honey, I know,” Lynette had said. “This boy is not autistic. I saw autistics when our class volunteered at the state mental hospital. They were banging their heads on the wall and hollering. Gabriel is NOT autistic!”
Lynette had said this with a sense of smug self-satisfaction, as though now they could all rest easy—Gabriel was not autistic after all. Marilee supposed it would do no good to point out that the clinic where Gabriel had been diagnosed was considered one of the leading authorities on autism in the world. She sat stunned as Lynette went on about the “autistics” she’d seen at the state hospital, as though she was talking about the habits of zoo animals.
At church, Lorna, a woman in her Sunday School class, had drawn her aside. Lorna considered herself a notable member of the congregation, and indeed she was, along with her five children. They stood out on Sunday morning because the pews around them were always empty, except for the occasional hapless visitor forced to endure an hour of Lorna’s children kicking the back of the bench, talking aloud, or poking the visitor’s back. These visitors were usually never seen again. Some members secretly speculated that Lorna’s family might be a major factor in declining church membership numbers.
Lorna was always reading the latest books on raising a family and was eager to share her knowledge on how to rear the theoretical children she thought everyone had. She was especially fond of catchy bromides, which she quoted reverentially, as though they had come straight from the mouth of God.
“Now, Marilee, you can’t keep this boy in a cocoon!” said Lorna. “We must give our children not only roots, but wings!”
Marilee’s mind flashed back to the stick figure drawings in the brochure on autism. She pictured the one that showed a figure darting out in front of a car. “NO FEAR OF REAL DANGERS” was the caption. She could almost hear the screeching brakes.
Lorna had gone on, talking about how we must let our children learn from their experiences or something like that. Marilee really hadn’t heard. She was learning to tune these people out, like so much background noise, just as she had her minister when he spoke of Gabriel and his “affliction” as being part of the perfect will of God.