“Is that all you got?”
I was talking trash but it was the first time I had seen the boy so focused. I have to stop thinking about him like a boy, he will be a man soon enough.
I was breathing harder than usual. He’s twelve now and the years of training are finally coming together.
I knew it would come to this one day. It was inevitable. I just never realized it would happen so quickly.
His fighting skills were developing exactly the way I thought they would. He would be able to beat me. Soon. Sooner than I was comfortable with.
It was the Way.
His form was flawless. I could see him scanning me for weaknesses. At my age I had plenty. His problem was picking the right one. I could see his keen autistic eye scanning me, dissecting me, breaking me down into calculated movements.
The thing I feared would be his undoing, his autism, our mutual curse, our familial affliction, had been weaponized by me. I had turned his intense focus, his all-consuming attention-to-detail into a tool he could benefit from.
I remember hearing at two: he would have no life of quality, no future, no opportunities. No more heartbreaking words could a father hear for his two year old.
I admit I wept openly. Fathers are loathe to admit they want their children to be perfect. They want their kids to do all the things they were never able to accomplish. I was guilty of imagining my son playing sports, enjoying computer games, having friends of his own.
The doctor said it was impossible. He had failed every exam they could give him. We did it twice with different doctors. Prepare to institutionalize him. Give him drugs for the angry outbursts. Manage him with medication, for your own good.
I have never been good with authority figures. I decided to do what I always do when I am cornered. I taught him the most important lesson I though I could.
We go down swinging. He may be an authority, but I know something about longshots. As a parent, you cling to any chance, no matter how small, that you can make a difference in your children’s existence.
I decided we would fight, with every fiber of our beings. It was The Way.
My mother taught me young: Why do we succeed? Because we must.
I taught him to fight, at every level, to bring all of his abilities, no matter how limited to the battle that is Life.
He couldn’t even speak when I first started teaching him to fight. Four years old and autistic. Language was not something he had managed yet. Since he couldn’t talk, I would teach him to move. His language would be elegance in movement. I would teach him power, stealth, and an awareness of his body’s capacity would be his language.
I taught him to draw. All movement was important. Small ones or great ones, each would teach him something about the nature of the world. He learned to play music. Movement and sound were also related in his neural map.
No therapy was beyond my desire to teach him, no matter how slowly it progressed. I realized reluctantly I would need to teach him to protect himself. This couldn’t be a battle only of the mind. Without language, he might need to protect himself.
It killed me to forge my beautiful boy into a weapon. I still regret it.
Until this day he knew no violence, no harm, only the good of the world. Doted upon, loved and nurtured, I became the first real obstacle he would experience in life.
The first force determined to shape him into something else.
He copied me. Watched me for instruction. We didn’t use words. There was no point. The movement was everything. He adjusted quickly. In a few weeks he was smooth and fast. The katas blended one into another.
Now we trained against each other. His hands stung when I struck him, tempered just enough to let him know he needed to be faster. And faster each day.
But he didn’t have the edge.
He wouldn’t attack. I pressed him. He retreated. This was something foreign to his nature. Didn’t matter. The world was terrible. He must fight. He must understand there was no alternative.
Fight or die. This was my job. To teach him this lesson. Weeks turned into months, and he still wouldn’t attack. Until the day his mother came home and saw us training. She never saw how tough it was, never saw him cry. It was a private thing between warriors.
She parked the car. Strode out and was about to interfere. I shook my head. She stopped. This was not her work. This was mine. I struck him just inside his block. He looked at her. Her disapproval was evident. She was angry.
Suddenly he exploded. This was the first time he ever got angry. He followed through, fast enough to almost catch me by surprise. I had gotten used to him being passive.
Tears began to flow as they usually did, but this time, he came faster. He pushed me. He changed his posture. That step backward that didn’t come. He stood his ground as she watched him. He showed me everything he learned, faster than I had ever seen him.
My advance was halted. His hands were a blur. Fighting with a passion I had never seen I could no longer push him. He was in the zone. His flow was perfect. He wasn’t thinking any more, he was just feeling it, letting his body move. Showing me just how much talent he had.
He hit me on the jaw. Solid, I saw it and traded him for it.
He hit me. It was a thing of beauty. We both stopped, stunned by it.
He stood for a second and then ran to his mother.
He would not fight me for himself. But because his mother was unhappy with me teaching him, for her, he would fight.
From that day forward, I never underestimated him again. Language came slowly to him but after his explosive moment, he began to learn language faster than ever.
He eventually was able to attend school. I never realized how much of my time was invested in him until he wasn’t there. I never realized how lucky I was to spend as much time with him as I did.
As he has grown, his connection to movement has expanded his awareness and ability. He is a star athlete, plays every sport well. I am regaled by tales of his exploits at school from every coach and teacher. He sings, he dances, he plays music. I never heard any of this from him, strangely enough. We do homework, we train, we spend time together. I taught him but discover there are parts of him I still don’t know.
I learn from his teachers, his classmates love him. I learn how much his teachers adore and admire him. I discover my little warrior is much more than I ever knew. I love him with a passion fiercely held within my breast. Released now, in tempered doses, lest I explode from the joy of his unexpected successes.
We still spar. He is stronger now. Faster now. He is dangerous now. He knows how to harness his anger. He is patient. He knows I am getting older, he knows one day, he will beat me.
Not today. But eventually.
And I will, secretly on that day, rejoice in my defeat.
It is the Way. Our Way.
My son and I are autistics. In America, 1 in 68 children will develop autism. You will, in your life, know someone with autism, sooner, rather than later. But if you know nothing else, know this: Autism is not the end. When a doctor says to you, your child appears on the autistic spectrum, it is not the worst news in the world.
It will appear large, monstrous, and quite terrifying. It will be hard to hear. It will frighten you with the immensity of the task. As it should. But it could mean an opportunity to know your child in a way you never knew you could. It means longer days, sleepless nights, struggles over food, what clothes they are willing to wear, meltdowns, emotional difficulties, beyond the realm of the already considerable task of being a parent.
My only useful advice: Don’t give up. Get help. Share the challenge. Savor those victories, no matter how small. Acknowledge those weaknesses. Rise every day for the challenge. Only that way do you have any chance at all for victory. Your child is in there. Your mission, to find a way for them to interact the best way their talents will allow.
Sculptors say they are releasing the statue from the marble they carve. Raising an autistic is like that. You are releasing them from the prison of their senses, teaching them to bite off just a piece of the world at a time, until they can see it in all of its splendor. If you’re careful, you may begin to see the world differently, too.
My son’s greatest gift to me was an appreciation of a world I was moving too fast to see. Autism isn’t a curse, it’s a change in perspective.
Thaddeus Howze is a writer, essayist, author and professional storyteller for mysterious beings who exist in non-Euclidean realms beyond our understanding. Since they insist on constant entertainment and can’t subscribe to cable, Thaddeus writes a variety of forms of speculative fiction to appease their hunger for new entertainment.