The book displayed caught my attention. My son and I were in the children’s section of the public library, just prior to the start of Hanukkah.
Nathan Blows Out the Hanukkah Candles was an amusing title – one that I could relate to. At past Hanukkahs, Kai has wanted to blow out the candles on our menorah.
I grabbed the book and quickly paged through it. It looked like a fun story. At a minimum, it was timely, and I thought that perhaps it would help my son learn a little more about the holiday we would soon be celebrating.
So, I checked the book out and brought it home.
It was only after I began reading it with Kai at bedtime one night that I realized that the title character was a boy with autism. I had unwittingly chosen a book that might spur our first discussion about autism with our son.
The story is told from the perspective of Jacob, the younger brother who is sometimes embarrassed by his older sibling with autism. Nathan repeats himself constantly and recites the fifty United States in alphabetical order. As I read, I saw the similarities between Nathan and my son – Kai had once memorized the order that the fifty states joined the union.
In the story, Jacob’s mother reminds him that Nathan’s brain is wired differently. But Jacob is mortified when, in the presence of his new friend, Nathan blows out the Hanukkah candles during the menorah-lighting ceremony.
In the end, the boys’ parents deal with the situation in a patient, creative and loving way that embraces Nathan and teaches acceptance.
It was a wonderful story.
But I was uncomfortable reading it with Kai. We haven’t told him that he has autism. I wasn’t sure that I was prepared to have that discussion yet.
I was worried that the book would spur questions from him. Lately, he has frequently been asking me to explain what different words mean. What would I say to him if he asked what "autism" is? Would he recognize that he has autism? How would I explain that to him?
My worries were for naught that night. Kai did not ask any questions. I don’t know if he noticed any resemblance between himself and Nathan. And I was too chicken to ask him about it.
I had passed on the opportunity to have "The Talk."
Kai received an iPad for Christmas and his favorite app right now is BrainPOP, which features entertaining animated movies that teach kids about various topics in math, science, social studies, English, health, technology, arts and music.
He and I both love BrainPOP. Kai thinks that Moby, the orange robot who appears in every movie, is hilarious. I like that the short films do a great job of succinctly explaining each topic.
The other day, Kai was browsing through the health section when he noticed a movie on ADHD. He asked my wife what it was and they watched it together. At the end, the app recommended films on related topics, including autism.
Kai did not choose to watch that one, so we once again dodged "The Talk."
But I realized that it would only be a matter of time. One of these days, Kai is bound to ask why we have an Autism Awareness magnet on our car, or why we read so many books and periodicals on the subject.
So I’ve been thinking about what I would say.
I will explain to him what autism is, and how it affects the people who have it. Perhaps learning about it will help him understand why he has difficulties in some areas. I don’t know how much self-awareness he has, but having this knowledge might give him some context of the world he lives in, and perhaps give him peace of mind for knowing why he is different from others.
Most of all, I want to convey that autism doesn’t make him bad, or dumb or undesirable. It makes him a special kid with some unique challenges, and abilities. One that Mom and Dad love a whole lot.
And as I write this, my son has gone on his iPad once again. He opened up BrainPOP and went to the health section. I'm holding my breath. The topic he chooses this time is...
“Where Do Babies Come From?”
It looks like I’ll be having "The Talk" all right. Just not the one I’ve been preparing for.