Last night, lovely lady (12) had a good friend over. Good friend is a delightful young lady, charming and sparkly. She and lovely lady are kindred spirits. They like to sing and dance, and play video games together, and talk about clothes and hair and makeup. Good friend is not the least bit shy about letting me know that she thinks lovely lady should be allowed to do things like watch television whenever she'd like, wear a bikini, wear eye shadow and so forth. Tonight, it was the mall.
Good friend: Can we go to the mall by ourselves sometime? I think Hannah should get to go to the mall and shop without a parent watching her all the time.
Me, with a smile because we've been down this road before and I know she already knows what I'm going to say: Not yet. Maybe when you're older.
Good friend, deviating from the script a bit: Is the reason that you won't let us go to the mall by ourselves because we have autism? Because we don't.
Lovely lady, not exactly indignantly but in a speak-for-yourself voice: I do.
I don't quite remember what good friend said in response, something like "We don't have autism." I was watching lovely lady, a little floored. As she spoke she glanced at me a little questioningly. I nodded, Yes, that's so.
Lovely lady, interrupting good friend and a little more confidently than the first time: I have been diagnosed with autism.
Good friend, stopping the "Can we go to the mall" mid-thought: You do?
Lovely lady: I have autism, right, Mom?
Good friend: Really?
Me, to lovely lady: Well, I like the way you put it, you've been diagnosed with autism.
Even six months ago the idea of autism just didn't sink in to my lovely lady's awareness. It's come up from time to time, a little like the topics of sex or death or the other big conversations parents know we must have with our children, and so we try to work them in to matter-of-fact conversations as the topics arise. But she hasn't ever identified autism as a part of her own identity, or even shown much interest in the idea.
I see this as a milestone, a milestone with which many families don't have to cope...or dread. I've always wondered, at what point will my lovely lady understand that she has a disability that really does create additional challenges in her life? What will that be like for her to come to that realization? Will my daughter be crushed at the idea that she's different? And, as so often happens, she's astonished me with her matter-of-fact acceptance of what is. She doesn't see herself as "different." She sees herself as a regular kid who has autism. She hasn't been crushed, or even all that concerned. I forget, I think, that for her having autism is like having "impossible" (her words) wavy hair, or a long second toe. It's always been a part of the fabric of her life. We've not made a big deal out of autism any more than we've made a big deal out of combing snarls out of her hair. And she has friends with autism, a whole group of good friends with whom she swims and plays and talks. She sees these lovely friends as girls first, autism is just a part of what has brought them together, and I think that helps too.
I'm curious to see where this will lead. How will she fold this new idea into her own perception of who she is? Where will our challenges lie?
And I am so proud of her.