You have been a good boy and got good grades last grading period so I let you have my old smartphone to play with during your school break.
“This is my phone?” you asked.
“Yes,” I answered. “But I will get it back from you on Sunday night because you have school again on Monday, okay?”
You nodded and sat down on the couch beside me, happily tapping and scrawling through your game apps.
At nearly nine years old, you appear much the same as other boys your age, average in height and average in build. However, you are three school grades behind. You speak almost exclusively in English, not with the finesse of your sister at the same age, with some broken words and almost always a lilt at the end, but well enough to be understood by your teachers and the school staff. I was told that you have few friends because the other mostly Tagalog-speaking kids have trouble communicating with you. When you fight with your sister, you go straight to me or your daddy, saying “Ate (Big Sister) did this” or “Ate said that” and are content to let our simple admonishment of your sister stand. While other boys your age would have made their moms crazy with worry by sneaking off to bike or play basketball with their gang in the streets, you are content to stay home, watching cartoons on TV or playing with your phone. Other kids would pester their parents for the latest toys and gadgets but not you; you are happy to play with your old toys or imagine yourself in a fort when you’re actually surrounded by your pillows. At family gatherings, while you often sit by yourself, again with your phone or with your favorite-at-the-moment toy, your cousins would be running about roughhousing and making noises that irritate you.
There was a time when a quiet, mild-mannered, English-speaking Filipino boy would be called the ideal son, but not now. Not when everyone knows, because we felt no need to hide it, that you are in the autism spectrum.
You were around four years old when we noticed something different about you. Your sister was already speaking straight sentences at that age but you were still into grunts and pointing. Your teachers complained that you can’t sit still in class, that you would stand up and walk around. You were very sensitive to noise and textures; I now realized that you hated the Kiddie Halloween party held at my office because the music was so loud and your Dracula costume felt like it was chafing you. It was almost impossible to give you a haircut; you would squirm and throw tantrums whenever the barber and his clipper would go anywhere near you.
You were around five when you were diagnosed and I felt like the ground was pulled beneath me. This is not something that can be fixed by a quick visit to the doctor or a few drops of medicine. This is something life-long. It frightened me.
I was so scared it took another six months before I pulled you out of your mainstream pre-school and got you into speech and occupational therapy. I bought you games and toys for much younger kids, thinking those would hasten your learning. I even relented when your devped prescribed you with Ritalin. Still, you were improving at what seemed to me at a snail’s pace.
I worried. I worried that you will never catch up with your peers. I worried that the costs of your doctor’s appointments and treatments would be overwhelming. I worried that I would not have what it takes to support you emotionally, financially or in whatever way you needed. I worried that should anything happen to me or your dad, you wouldn’t be equipped to deal with life on your own. Mainly, I just worried. Period.
Then, everyone got into action. Your dad and I rearranged household priorities to free up your yaya to spend most of her time with you, particularly when you go to school or therapy. Your grandma recommended a school nearer to our place that has a good special education program. Your uncles and aunts became understanding when you would not immediately answer them or when you would say something out of turn. We moved into a house where you can have your own room that you can retreat to, with subdued colors that won’t irritate or distract you. Your dad and I tried to be as involved in your school and in your inner world of games and cartoons as much as we can, given our busy and demanding careers. Your grandparents also pitched in by fetching you or attending school events when we can’t.
It has been four years since that fateful diagnosis. I have seen how you tried to navigate the world, how you tried to find your place in it. I have seen how you picked up new concepts or try to undertand more complex ones. You try your best to speak Tagalog whenever we prompt you. Far from the aloof and isolated stereotype of autistic kids, I have seen you approach other kids, waitresses, security guards and teachers in an open and friendly manner.
At my last meeting with your teacher, she was amazed at your improvement after months of working with a special ed tutor we got for you. When I see you with your younger cousin, you play and roughhouse that I had to tell you boys to tone it down. You have been off Ritalin for almost two years, and your devped recommended to discontinue your occupational therapy. You qualified for academic and conduct awards last grading period and your teachers and I are hopeful that you will be able to transition to Grade 1 and go on from there.
We still have a long road ahead of us. I still worry but not as much as I used to. Because you have come so far and you will go farther, bravely, not because we’re pushing you but because you know that you have a place in this world. As much as I can, I’ll help you find it.