I knew from the moment I laid eyes on my younger son, a preemie with dusky, lanugo-covered skin, that he was unique. Others were scared to hold this fragile, funny-looking baby. But to me, he was beautiful. I could hold him and his twin brother for hours watching their tiny, newborn features. While his brother’s round, pink face relaxed into a smile as he slept, his contorted into mesmerizing expressions, eyes a-flutter, as we listened to classical music in the nursery.
This little boy, whom we affectionately call “Bear,” has always been his own kid. As a toddler, he would crawl in and out of his bedroom doorway, thumping his little legs before turning back. Once he could walk, he became obsessed with doors, so much a compulsion we had to tear him away, kicking and screaming. Oh, and there was the time in between when he stopped babbling.
Autism, we were assured, it was not. A double-ear infection could explain why he ceased to say “Mamama.” But what about the other behaviors? My husband confessed it once crossed his mind that our son may be autistic, but no, he didn’t think so anymore. And our son’s occupational therapist agreed. Your son is not autistic. While her direct words and extensive experience with autistic children did not convince me, this did: the speech therapist working with my son had a child who liked doors, in the same couldn’t-tear-himself-away manner. Her six-year-old had his “quirks,” she said, that’s just who he was.
Quirks. Even today I use this term to describe the habits of my now ten-year-old. While the door compulsion has gone the way of the past, “Bear” has exchanged it for an obsession with ski lifts. He knows their maker (Doppelmayr) and which ones at our local resort are two- or four-seater and which do or do not have a safety bar. His enthusiasm for skier transport and dogs (poochies, he calls them), loud voice and repetitive speech habits garner him inquisitive looks, especially as he is the size of a boy several years his senior.
Yes, he has his “quirks.” He has an interesting palate: he won’t eat cheese but can’t get enough hand-rolled sushi. He adores signage…and will spend hours designing his own and posting them throughout our house. He began reading at age two. However, “Bear” just gets by in school, impatient and restless with the whole process. He can be picture smart (he loves maps and navigation), sometimes body smart (he loves biking the BMX track), and has always been music smart (Alice Cooper was a favorite when he was a toddler…I blame my husband for that.). But an education truly based in multiple intelligences that nurtures nontraditional learning styles is tough to come by. Luckily his fourth grade teacher recognizes he is a concrete thinker and that’s a start to finding the guidance to help unleash his special gifts. When that happens, I truly believe “Bear” will be unstoppable.
I’ve always felt that way about him, even as a tiny barnyard-sound-making preemie. But even I realize a mother’s unconditional love cannot supplant the very real possibility my son will struggle to find his way. Recently, though, I received concrete(!) proof that people with “quirks” can circumvent the traditional method of learning and do not just average, but fulfilling and amazing, work. I watched a TED talk by Temple Grandin, a published author, professor, and advocate for autistic children. She herself is autistic and didn’t speak until the age of four. She describes herself as visual learner who struggled both academically and socially in school. Fortunately, with the support of her parents, speech therapists and academic mentors, Temple Grandin became Dr. Grandin, with a PhD in animal science.
Temple Grandin’s journey has given me hope for my son. He will find his path. It will take my husband’s and my support and our taking initiative with his education, and maybe even a counselor’s assistance with his “quirks.” His path may include college…it may not. Only he can determine that. But Temple Grandin’s story is one that has inspired and reassured me. I’m inspired to find a way to penetrate his mind and interest him in learning, as he doesn’t click with traditional educational method. And I am reassured he has an exciting life path ahead of him.
My son has many wonderful, intriguing “quirks.” But my absolute favorite is that he is a hugger. He hugged his Kindergarten teacher the day he met her, surprising her with a full-body, open-armed lunge. Even though in fourth grade, he will break rank in the hall and rush up to give me a huge all-consuming squeeze as I shelve books in the library. And he loves group “huggies!” his freakishly long arm span nearly encircling both his dad and me. He is loving, and doesn’t care how and when he shows it.
And my sweet Bear, I love you, too.
Quirks and all.