For a very simple reason over the last six years, I have clung to the hope that my son Liam was insulated from the emotional distress that can envelope a child when their parents divorce. He has autism.
For once, I had hoped that his exceptionality was a perk, protecting his innocence and preserving his heart. I was wrong. Very, very wrong. With his nonverbal days behind him and his growing conversational skills he can express himself, just like any other child that experiences divorce.
His message this summer? He desperately misses the unified family that he once had. His questions and comments mirror the conversations I have had with his younger sister throughout the years. Is it his fault? Why can't we get back together? Why did you get a divorce? Did you love daddy? Did he love you?
In the early morning hours of September 11, 2001, my ex announced that he was moving out. I always found it ironic that the microcosm of our marriage crumbled on that specific date. While he was pulling out of the driveway, I turned on the television and watched the first tower fall. Life is too short. Take a deep breath and move on.
It didn't take long for our three year old daughter, Mairin, to exhibit distress as the War of the Reynolds commenced with intense fighting, the upheaval of shuffling between different living arrangements and screaming at one another to stake claims on personal and community property. The skirmishes in the last months of our marriage were nothing compared to the nuclear fallout of our family's final destruction.
Sweet Liam handled it all in stride. No temper tantrums. No meltdowns. Just a gentle acceptance of an enormous change in his little life. I was so relieved. His flexibility with our rapidly changing family dynamic was clearly a blessing given the typical rigidity he displayed whenever his routine varied.
Finances were tight. For a drowning family, therapy was a necessity but almost a luxury I could not afford for each of us. Emotional triage was required to make ends meet.
Liam had his various therapies to continue to learn to communicate by connecting two words together, to learn his colors and to interact with his peers. Mairin was savvy enough to exhibit her best behavior and hide behind the "everything is ok" wall she had constructed. No matter how many art materials her chipper therapist broke out during the sessions, Mairin would paint a happy picture and then fall apart on the way home, telling me everything I had just paid someone $90 an hour to hear.
For years, I had attended Liam's sessions to stretch our dollars by learning the methods of his various occupational, speech and behavioral therapists and trying to implement them. In that same manner, I realized that I could be more effective by spending half of my own session discussing Mairin's difficulties and getting advice to help her adjust from week to week instead of relying on a stranger to connect with her for one hour every two weeks.
Mairin always had a gift for language and is a wise, old soul. Even at the age of three, she would sit and have significantly complicated conversations with me about the changes in our family and life in general. She was a sea of questions that I would answer as best I could to help her navigate the new emotions in her life. .
Not once did I ask my therapist for advice to help Liam adjust. On the surface, he seemed fine. He never said a peep.
Six years later, with a lot of persistence and hard work on everyone's part, Liam expresses himself well. We have long since moved beyond basic communications of frustrated gesticulations, wants and needs to higher planes where he effectively discusses his feelings and thoughts. They aren't the same kinds of conversations I can have with Mairin but they are real and they can be deep.
More often than not, these moments are often punctuated with language that requires the skills of Sherlock Holmes to connect the dots. Sometimes our talks are full of singsong language. Sometimes he uses scenes from movies, and the dialogue from them, to get his point across. Sometimes you have to know him on a very personal level to pick up on his references. But he can do it and has enough perseverance to be certain that you understand what he means.
Out of the blue the other day in the car, Liam told me that it made him sad not to have two parents in the same house like Timmy Turner does on the Fairly Odd Parents. He explained that he remembers when we all lived in the same house, what that house looked like and described events that happened there that I had long forgotten. To hammer his point home, as soon as we got in the house, he ran upstairs and dug through my photo albums in my closet. He found a picture of his dad and me when we were seniors in college - smiley, happy, just engaged. He thrust it into my hand and said, "See! You and daddy loved each other."
For the first time, I sat him down and explained that we weren't able to work things out. Sometimes mommies and daddies cannot pull it together no matter how hard they try and they get a divorce. His lip quivered. He said, "But I am getting better so you and daddy can get married again." I explained that we still care about each other but that we are not going to get back together and are moving on with our lives. One day, we might get married again, but not to each other. Huge tears rolled down his face as he starting moving toward the backdoor. As he turned the handle, he looked back at me and announced that he was going to go to India to find a genie lamp and make a wish.
It was clear that he was recalling Disney's Aladdin movie to assist him in expressing his feelings. His face, the hope reflected in it was too much - it broke my heart. What hurt more than that is that I have consistently ignored his emotional issues with regard to our divorce for six years because I couldn't "see" them on his surface even though they were right there. His silent struggle and pain have existed with the same level of intensity as Mairin's.
In every other aspect of his life, I knew and believed that he was absorbing information, that he was learning and growing. Even when I had no proof, when there was no eye contact or glimmer of recognition, I have always had that faith. I have always believed that when I told him how smart, wonderful and handsome he was that he knew what I was saying. Somehow it was bolstering his fragile self-esteem even when he couldn't speak a word. He was in there. Even if he couldn't utter a sound he was listening to the all the things that I told him. I have always talked to him like I would have talked to him if he hadn't had autism.
Why did I let something stop me when it came to this one issue?
With the divorce rate in the autism community verging on 70% within the first five years of diagnosis and 90% within the first ten, parents are faced with a multitude of special challenges with helping everyone adjust to the unfamiliar.
All children in this situation deserve the love and the respect for their parents to sit down and explain to them what is happening to their family and why, to the extent that it is appropriate for their age, or level of development or maturity. Children with autism are no exception. They need just as much reassurance that it isn't their fault. They need to know that they are loved, unconditionally. They, too, need help to navigate the storms that life brings.
Just because you can't see the storm beneath their surface, it doesn't mean it isn't there.