Over the holidays, we tend to think more about connecting with those both close to us and far away. Like everyone else, I also think about connections at this time of year – but in all honesty, hanging out with Georgia so much, I think about them all the time. Especially the unique connections I’ve experienced as a result of being her parent sidekick.

There are a surprising number of people who want to connect with Georgia and me based on the fact that she has autism. Their reasons vary, I’m sure, and many times they want to connect and just talk because they know someone with autism and they feel a kind of bond.

Often it’s other parents who recognize something in Georgia that they understand or can relate to. It’s a strange bond in a way, because every child with autism is so incredibly different on a day-to-day basis. But I do think that there really are truly shared emotional experiences involved in being a parent of a kid with autism.

Last year we decided to fly to South Carolina for our summer vacation instead of driving (as we typically do). As we boarded the plane, Georgia made her way down the aisle; saying “Hi there!” to every passenger and balancing herself by putting a firm greasy kid hand on each person’s shoulder as she passed by. I was apologizing to other passengers, nervously. As we sat down, the flight attendant came over and smiled, greeted Georgia warmly and said to me almost matter-of-factly, “I have a 24-year-old son with autism. Don’t you worry, she’s just fine.”

And, sure enough, she was. Just fine. She provided a fairly constant source of guffaw-worthy entertainment to adjacent passengers. After the flight attendant reviewed emergency procedures, Georgia yelled enthusiastically, “Really good job, Paula!!” And while other passengers offered a modest round of applause once the pilot successfully landed the plane, Georgia announced, “Woooohhh!!! Rock star pilot!!!”

At our summer rental in South Carolina we typically stay for a few weeks, and spend much of our time on the beach and in the pool. Last year, the father of a family whose stay overlapped ours approached me as I was reading poolside. Georgia was, as usual, floating about on her inflatable ring, wearing a bikini and fabulous too-small swimming goggles shaped like big pink crabs. As he sat down, the father took a long look at Georgia and then looked back at me, thoughtfully. With a heartbreakingly kind voice he said to me, “You’re doing a great job with her, you know.”

Taken aback, I smiled and stuttered something unintelligible. “No really,” he added, “I’ve watched you with her this week. She’s fabulous, so happy, so engaged and so social – that’s because of you and what you do with her. I can see it, and I know about it.”

There I was, on vacation thousands of kilometers from home, fighting back tears, feeling unexpectedly at home and chatting with this painfully lovely stranger who had reached out to me in such a deeply personal way.

I met his wife and he met Chris, my boyfriend and Georgia’s other parent. As the four of us chatted in the pool about how great the beach and pool are for kids and Georgia floated about around us, a lanky teenage boy who I hadn’t noticed more than in passing before, wearing board shorts and wraparound dark glasses silently slipped in the pool with us and started swimming practiced elegant lengths of the pool. His father introduced us to their son, Taylor, who has autism.

I’ve thought about these connections a lot and this one in particular. I often wonder about the motivation for reaching out to other parents who are strangers – as it’s happened to me often. I think much of the motivation is, as this father showed me, an ongoing attempt to engage the rest of the world in our children, to quietly negate the stereotypes of autism and to share with others just how unique our kids really are.

We collectively worry when we see autism depicted in a standardized way, a preconceived image or something predictably depressing. Yes, it’s challenging to raise a child with autism, but strangely enough, it’s not the tough stuff that parents talk to other parents about at length. Inevitably, we want to talk about the positives, the unique attributes of our kids and the joys – the things that make us proud, that make us happy.  In that way, we’re really not unlike any parent. But I think we feel an innate, safe bond of understanding alongside a mutual appreciation for the magnitude of difference, with parents of other kids with autism.  We talk about the moments in which autism, for us a constant presence, seems to take a backseat for a while.

Georgia is not at all like the movie or TV versions of “autism” — nor was Taylor as it turned out. Georgia is tenaciously social and her default setting is happy, even goofy much of the time. She has a wicked sense of humour and never (never!) tires of her own jokes. If a chair happens to get knocked over, that is the funniest thing she can imagine. She enjoys scrutinizing photos to find someone who might have their eyes closed (“omg that’s hilarious!”) and considers basic slapstick the highest form of humour.

Doing home renovations? If you happen to leave an old toilet on the street for garbage pick-up, we’ll laugh about that for weeks, even months. Put a Tupperware cake tin on your head and she’ll laugh so hard, she’ll cry. The best part is that she has figured out if she puts the cake tin on her head, you’ll laugh too.

She’s learning how to make jokes and include others in her humour. Our house is filled with, “Look!!! That’s REALLY funny, isn’t it?” many times a day. When she’s enjoying and sharing a joke, it’s really very hard to think about autism.

– – –

Taylor was a champion swimmer. He had been swimming in that same beachside pool since he was a toddler. His parents saw that he had a natural athleticism when in the water and pushed him into lessons and training, alongside neurotypical kids. They signed him up for the swim team, despite protests from worried coaches and other parents who were concerned that having Taylor on the team would hold their kids back.

Guess what? He succeeded, won medals, swam harder and faster the more he was encouraged. Still extremely quiet around others, he opened up when swimming and when talking about swimming, according to his parents. He was, maybe even, Olympic material one day.  I listened, rapt, to Taylor’s parents talking about him and watched him a lot that day.

On the deck of the pool, Taylor tripped over his feet and avoided eye contact by ensuring his wraparound glasses were always on. He was silent, detached, and noticeably awkward. Until he dived into that pool. The things that made me recognize Taylor as “autistic” seemed to vanish.

But in the water, Taylor was a smooth, sinewy presence. He moved through the blue, with mastery and skill that was breathtaking, as graceful as ballet. Taylor was, undeniably and absolutely, beautiful.

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