“Mommy, does Dawson have a little bit of autism or a lot of autism?” It was the question that came from my four year old daughter’s mouth just after she had asked me if she could have a cupcake for lunch and if we could go by the dollar store later that day. This was the beginning of many conversations yet to come with my Mae Mae: Questions about her brother, who has autism. Questions that only came in the car―in this most secure place, with me facing forward and gripping the steering wheel and with her strapped in her pink butterfly booster seat holding tight to her “lovies.” In our big safe black Volvo station wagon, just the two of us. Me focused on trying to get to our next destination, thinking about getting her signed up for her next dance class or how I needed to reschedule an occupational therapy appointment for my son. It was here — with me driving down Route 29, stopping and starting with the traffic lights, with cars passing me and with me passing cars — this is where the conversation began.
“Mommy, does Dawson have a little bit of autism or a lot of autism,”she asked me again. I could feel the tightness in my throat and the urge to break every traffic rule, to stop the car on the side of the road and put my daughter in the front seat so that we could drive together and talk. I wanted to be able to look her in the eye and read her face when I answered this question. I knew that the questions about my son and his autism were going to increase. I knew that, as she developed, so would her need to somehow put her arms around it. To hold it, look at it, be mad about it, cry about it, laugh about it, be embarrassed by it, and just question it. I knew it was coming, but I just did not expect it now.
So I took a deep breath and answered, “Well, Mae Mae sometimes he has a little bit of autism and sometimes he has a lot of autism. When Dawson puts things in his mouth, like marbles or hair bows or when he gets really upset and tries to hit me when the video skips, well that is when he has a lot of autism. And when he is playing tickle games with us as a family or when he wants to play ‘tag you’re it’ in the back yard―that is when he has a little autism.”
“When is his autism going to go away?” she asked.
“Sweetie, Dawson’s autism is not going to go away.”
Her voice was strong and adamant, “But Mommy, Dawson is talking better.”
With a sense of calmness I said, “I know he is talking better and he is working really hard, but honey, it is never going to go away. He may learn to talk better and play better, but it never going to go away.”
With a sadness in her voice that I could see in her eyes in the rear view mirror she said, “Mommy, I don’t like Dawson’s autism.”
I could feel the tears welling in my eyes, “I know you don’t. You know what? Sometimes I don’t like it very much either. Sometimes his autism makes me feel sad or even mad.”
I could sense her looking at me. “It makes me feel sad and mad too, Mommy.”
“Yes, Mae Mae?”
“Can I still have a cupcake for lunch today?”
I smiled and wiped away the tears. “Sure why not.”
My daughter said with an excited breath, “Can we still go to the dollar store today after we pick up Dawson from school? You know Dawson loves to go to the dollar store. I have a great idea! We can go to the dollar store as a family!”
I nodded my head in agreement, “Yes. Yes, we can. We most certainly can.”
This was the beginning; the first of many conversations to come in the car with my daughter. It’s just me and my “Mae Mae.” In the car. Safe- quiet. Mother- daughter. The conversations, they are simple, short, heart-wrenching, honest, and full of love. Wrapping her arms around this world of autism. Around my son and me.
Copyright © cheairs graves February 18, 2011