Let me paint a picture for you of my son Eli's Aspergers.
Eli's first word, at the ripe old age of 9 months, was "yellow." Not "Mom" or "Dad." His first full sentence, not long after at 1 year, was, "It is space-time continuum travel." His preschool took out a whole page in the yearbook just for "Eli-isms," referring to the mind-blowing things he would say. Yep, that should've been a clue.
He was awkward. An accident waiting to happen. His eyes were wild when he was excited. His pupils swallowing up his grey irises. He wouldn't cry often. So when he did, we knew it was serious. Haircuts brought meltdowns. Eventually our visits to the hairdressers lessened until we just let it grow out. Later we realized that he hid behind his hair to avoid eye contact.
Loud noises were too much for him (e.g., crowds, kids screaming, vacuums). He had a heightened sense of smell along with a weak stomach. Not the best combination. He became enthralled with chess, wanting to play over and over. I have always practiced yoga and he took to it, taking in the knowledge of the positions' names and the history of the art. He learned breathing techniques, which he still uses to this day. It helped with his overall focus and balance.
He would parrot anything he heard on TV. Watching a movie with Eli was like watching it with an echo. He, like so many kids, loved video games. He usually beat them within a day -- and at $60 a pop I learned to limit the access. When he got into reading, he could complete a book in a day. Maybe two. I would quiz him on random points in the book because I couldn't fathom that he was retaining what he read. Eli has rote memory. In a nutshell, that's memorization through repetition. I would say, "Reading's not a race."
At age 10, he discovered Edgar Allen Poe. Fascinated with his biography, memorizing all he could, Eli carried a book of poems with him at all times.
One day in school, he discovered an Italian poem. He came home, handed me the paper he'd scribbled it on and spoke it from memory. Then, he proceeded to say the poem again in English. He had free time in computer class, so he translated it. The first song he ever memorized was "Heart of Gold" by Neil Young.
Doesn't sound like too terrible of a condition, does it?
Now allow me to paint another picture of my son Eli's Aspergers, using a different palette.
Eli developed low self-esteem young. He can be his own worst enemy, as many Aspies are. When he couldn't get something right, he would call himself "stupid" (a swear word in my house), would sit and repeatedly bang his head into the wall until he was stopped. I have seen him slap himself in the face and punch his head out of frustration or when he feels inadequate. I tried to let him know that he was my little professor, a gift to me. To the world.
Little League was a joke. Not only did he rarely connect with the ball, he wasn't exactly the most agile child on the field. Being positioned in the outfield was perfect. He could chase a butterfly, watch ants build their home, or just sit and watch the world around him. A world where he was the outsider.
Other kids didn't talk to him and quit including him. In hindsight, that's what he wanted. Then there were bullies. Every year, new ones. School showcased how different he was. Kids can be cruel, and Eli was a docile target. He was sporadically depressed. I am thankful for his sister, Autumn. It took some years but they proved to be best friends.
I had to change my vocabulary when speaking to him. Everything is literal. It's either black or white. Just or unjust. Right or wrong. There has to be logic to everything. Jokes and idioms were hard for him to comprehend. I would always have to explain both.
Aspergers is lightheartedly dubbed the "Honest Abe Syndrome." They tell the truth. Even if it means losing a friend. He has told on me before. Eli tells on himself. He would correct his teachers and was labeled "defiant."
Eli can't help how he is wired. His world is not an easy one, and no parent wants to see their kid struggle. We work on his coping skills and critical thinking. Without those, bad things can happen to a person's frame of mind.
Now, this. As I sat glued to the TV that Friday, watching the horror unfold, my heart sinking deeper with each update, Eli walks in the door. Usually this is his ritual Dr. Phil hour. But not this day. He slowly sits next to me, staring at my tear-soaked face. I grab onto him and hug. He gives me a pat on the back like you would a buddy.
My son doesn't lack empathy. He is just less capable of showing it.
I make it a general rule not to break down in front of my kids. It scares them. I got my emotions in check and filled him in on the known details. Then we heard the reporter says "Aspergers" and time stood still.
Eli asked, "How could someone with Aspergers DO that?"
I felt my blood begin to boil. "They don't have all the facts yet, kiddo," was my reply. I had already read that Lanza had a personality disorder among a myriad of mental health issues. Are they really singling out Aspergers?
By Sunday, my attempt to avoid the news was futile when 60 Minutes came on following the football game I was watching. Eli had left the room. Just in case. Opening story: A narrow-minded view. Bad interviews. Not enough facts. Twisted interpretations. A total smear piece on Aspergers.
They brought up none of Lanza's other mental illnesses. For the record, Aspergers is not classified as such.
I panicked. Immediately, I thought about keeping him home the next day, for fear of a collective lynch mob mentality. See, rather than educating one's self on the facts or researching, people watch the news and let public opinion dictate how they feel when atrocities like this happen.
The feeling of fight or flight came over me. I'm my son's greatest advocate. The media attempted to destroy my world in only 10 minutes. Aspies will never be socially accepted with the media associating the syndrome with the murder. That damn show added to the stigma, causing unnecessary hype. And many jumped on the bandwagon. Scouring the comment sections on certain sites left me shaking.
Eli, who wouldn't hurt a fly, could be walking into the lion's den at school. There are faces behind the name Aspergers. Each different, each beautiful. Each longing to be understood and accepted.