My daughter skips along through the sand, little legs moving in an awkward and beautiful ballet. Her arms swing widely at her sides, fingers splayed, hands slightly aloft. As her toes take their first plunge into the water’s edge, she squeals happily and kicks her feet in hard, sending sparkling bits of the sea into the air.
She stumbles slightly as she runs through the water, losing her balance as the ocean ripples past her in thin sheets like a moving glass floor. She stops and leans to dip her fingers in, pausing for a few breaths— maybe she spies a hermit crab scuttling by?— and then crouches and grabs two wet handfuls of saturated sand. She stands and watches closely as the sand drips out from her loosely clenched fists.
My girl does all of this in silence that is only occasionally punctuated by words I can’t quite catch, phrases from her favorite television show that flit in and out of existence like Higgs bosons. Her pauses are intentional, meditative. Her eyes are soft but intense; she is thinking and understanding.
In November, she will be four. In a week, she will return to preschool along with her twin sister: a land where loud children rush past her like bats in the night, sonar waves diverting them off a collision course in just fractions of a second. Tall, friendly women will bend over and speak to her in a kind falsetto, with gentle and repeated prompting for greetings, hand-holding, and listening ears. On the playground, she will find a far corner with a tree and embrace it, fingers extended, mouth open, chest pressed against the bark. She will tear up a freshly fallen green leaf and rip it into tiny pieces. She will approach a vacant swing slowly, and when a faster-moving child snatches it up first she will calmly change directions. She will be ushered back into the building, and then into a classroom, and later out of the building again with the herd like a flock of birds or sheep.
She will sit at tables and be shown pictures, asked to select an activity, brought to use the potty, given breaks on the beanbag in the corner when she feels overwhelmed. She will come home with a note that says she did a good job eating her snack and had a hard time using walking feet in the hallway.
During the course of the school day my daughter will, undoubtedly, notice something in a moment that no one else sees, and it will never be recorded because it will not be objectively identifiable or measurable, and because the words in her head rarely pass her lips.
In all of the days that she has been on this earth, my sweet girl has been fiercely and unmoveably independent. She asks little of us as her parents but to let her be in the moment. She would spend her whole day at the small private beach behind my parents’ home.
But no one sees her there.
They see her in the grocery store, lying in the body of the cart holding a small figurine or two, talking softly to herself. They see her in the corner of the Chuck-E-Cheese’s looking lost, twirling slowly on a tinkling merry-go-round. They see her wandering in a park, galloping and squealing towards the trees. They see her cackling and running away from us in the library, or whining and squirming off a lap while we simultaneously crack open a juice box and valiantly struggle to get a WiFi signal for her iPad.
They do not see the way her eyes light up when she sees the moon in the sky, only that her eyes never meet theirs. They do not see her at home in the afternoon, bringing her toys over to me on the couch so she can lean against me while she plays, only that she does not ask us questions. They do not see her climb onto my lap and grab my face in her small hands, tapping her forehead softly against mine, only that she has never used words to say, “I love you.”
They see how she is different from her peers, and they feel sorry— for us, her parents, the “autism warriors,” the future aging caregivers of an adult child, wistful dreams of grandchildren fading in the face of a child who gets older but never grows up. They see every bad parody of disability that has ever flickered across their televisions; every distant neighbor whose sister has a disabled child. They see gaps in development that are holes, and they do not fill them with anything.
I wonder, desperately— do you not know that you are looking at a garden? My child is rows and rows of beautiful wild flowers. She is self-pollinating. She is colorful. She is joyous. She is patient. She jumps and giggles, and she shakes off seeds that leave a trail of tiny green shoots behind her. Her love is unassuming, quiet, and uninhibited.
Why should we work so hard to change her? Why do we demand so much of her every day, to look in our eyes and wave hello and use her words and follow the timetables that were broken like boards over the backs of generations of children just like her, who spent their lives in institutions so far from the beach that their dreams of the ocean greyed over with mist? Why should we ask her to make up the difference between who she is and who we want her to be, when so many of us live our lives chasing the pursuit of ever-elusive happiness?
Why should she change when the very pulse of her soul matches the rhythm of the waves?
Whose language is this world written in, anyway?
Julie is the mother of two amazing, funny, and sweet autistic daughters. She blogs at Amplify Autism and can be found on Twitter at @AmplifyAutism.