I already had three boys before Christopher came along. When he was born, we expected the tiny curly-haired charmer to follow roughly the same development track that his older brothers blazed before him.
By his first birthday, he was already ahead of the game, walking at nine months, engaging admirers with his bright eyes, long lashes and dimples. By twelve months, he was chattering and pointing at things he hadn't yet learned to label.
By his second birthday, he hadn't uttered a word for six months and wouldn't let my husband or I put him down. Ever.
A few days later, at the urging of his pediatrician, we had him evaluated at Easter Seals and promptly received a diagnosis of Autism. The next day we started him in their early intervention program.
Today, he is an eighth grade student, learning with his peers in "regular" classes and has been on the high honor role at his middle school for the past several semesters. In between then and now, his journey has been filled with frustrations and joy as well as set backs and triumphs.
And the hardest part for me has been learning to let go - stepping back and letting him blaze his own trail.
I used to have a white-knuckled grip on him. Fighting the urge to hover nearby like a protective body guard on over-drive had been my modus operandi since we got his diagnosis. Take, for instance, the time we signed him up for soccer.
At the first practice session, I spotted a mal-intentioned team mate who enjoyed pushing my son's vast array of buttons. When the coach looked the other way, I took it upon myself to take this kid to task with a simple, "Be nice." When he smirked at me, I exchanged some choice words with his mother. Right or wrong, nobody messes with my son, I thought. While he couldn't/wouldn't fight his own battles, I'd fight them for him. RAR, right?
Learning to ride a bike was another challenge - for me, not him. I was certain he wouldn't have the coordination skills or tolerance for tumbling required when learning to go training-wheel-less. When he was eight and all of his classmates were riding their bikes to school, I knew I couldn't put it off any longer. I had to loosen my grip again.
My first impulse was to go with a program for special needs kids at a nearby rehabilitation hospital. Very expensive, but safe, with lots of trained occupational therapists on hand.
But there was no need. One afternoon spent on the sidewalk in front of our house with his two-wheeler and three older brothers and he was riding like a pro. Having discovered a new-found freedom that allowed him to glide gracefully along, just like everybody else, left him smiling for hours. We called everyone we knew to share the good news.
The next anxiety-laden moment was when middle school loomed on his horizon. My husband and I, along with his elementary school support team, all held our breath, expecting a rough transition period. We scheduled a meeting exclusively to devise all sorts of strategies to handle the anxiety attacks and melt downs we were certain he'd experience when he'd get lost in the maze of hallways or forget his locker combination.
Turns out, there was no need. He transitioned with the maturity of a child beyond his years. Breathing a sigh of relief, we loosened our grip more, letting him take the bus to and from school every day, join clubs and start babysitting his younger brother for short periods of time.
To look at him from a distance, you would have absolutely no idea that he has Asperger's Syndrome - except, of course, if he's standing in a crowd of other kids, say, at the bus stop. He would be the tall, good-looking, overly-friendly-for-a-14-year-old guy standing alone, apart from the rest.
Most recently, when I looked at him from this vantage point, he was up on the stage in his school's auditorium, auditioning for their spring play ("The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe"). He had been looking forward to it for weeks.
Completely loosening my grip, I told him to go for it.
On the day the information meeting took place, he stayed after school to attend it. Signing up for an audition time, he prepared for the part he wanted - Mr. Tumnus.
When the big day arrived, he called from school to remind me of his audition time and I assured him again that I'd be there to pick him up afterwards. I arrived at the school with minutes to spare. Not wanting him to see me, I peeked through the little window in the door.
There he was, holding his script in one hand and gesturing with the other as he read to the audience of four teachers who were watching and taking notes.
Waiting four days to find out if he made it was no small task, but he bore it well. Not a day went by that I didn't remind him, "If you got the part, great. If you didn't, that's OK, too, right?"
Each time I said it, he nodded in agreement.
Finally the day came. I watched for the bus to pull to the corner at 3:20 as it always did. I met him at the door and asked, "Well?" His expression gave me no clue.
He bounded through the door and announced, "I didn't make it, but that's OK. At least I tried, right?"
Oh my, how far my boy has come... and I can't wait to see what the future holds.