(Photo by Bruno Nascimento on Unsplash)

Kids his age bike down our streets. Flipping back their faux hawks, all lean shoulders and easy smiles. They chatter about Fortnite and Roblox and things I am too uncool to know. They yell and joke, their laughter carrying faint traces of the men they will soon become. Their parents worry about grades and missed projects. After school piano classes and weekend soccer practice. Pre teen boys, caught between disappearing childhoods and middle school crushes. How complicated they seem to me!

My son sits in his room, squealing with joy because he’s mastered a new level of Mario Odyssey. He hasn’t met his friends or even wanted to see them. Truth be told, he doesn’t have many. He’s ten and couldn’t care less about Fortnite or soccer. And if he saw a girl, he’d probably talk to her about the London subway system.

I look at those boys turning the corner of our street and something inside me aches.

My child is unlike most kids his age. He asks for very little and is happiest when alone. He welcomes solitude and quiet, spending hours peering at old train maps. When he talks, I can still hear his toddler self, his little kid self squeaking at me. There’s an economy in his thoughts, his speech, his movements. He only says what he means — even his lies are small and honest.

The pandemic has been traumatic for every one of us. My child has had his share of disappointments. He misses the playgrounds, his classroom, and those precious train rides he went on every weekend. He longs for a time when he can visit the nearest bouncy house, without having to sanitize his hands (sensory issues). Every month this stretches on, I see him grow weary of how small his world has become. He has new anxieties and worries, and he often struggles to get through his day without descending into a full-blown panic attack.

And yet he soldiers on, with that dreamy smile stretching across his face. Come rain or shine, he wakes up every morning and chooses hope. This little autistic boy, soon to be 11, somehow has more grace than I could ever muster.

He has his prickly moments; he is human, after all. Transitions are still hard, and academics have taken a firm backseat this year. He cries plenty and often — big, shaky tears that rock his skinny body. As I hold him close, I realize how much harder the pandemic has hit him, denying him his simple pleasures, robbing him of so much he enjoys. But with time and patience, the strain leaves his face, and he’s back to lounging on his swing. He hums about the flags of the world and asks for popcorn.

On the darkest of days, he surprises me, chatting up a storm, giggling at jokes only the two of us would ever understand. In those brilliant moments, he’s just a kid, his brow unfurrowed by worry and his eyes full of mischief. I wish I could freeze those moments, bottle that joy, drink in his laughter. But I can’t, and I won’t, because this is his life to live.

We’re often told to look to our elders for advice. But I’ve found my son is a better teacher. Under all his challenges and stresses, he has this strong, sparkling pulse of hope. He knows his limitations, and strives to be the best he can. He may never be on a soccer team or learn that Fortnite dance. He isn’t likely to bike down our street with his friends, tossing secret glances at girls his age. And he may never annoy me with Tiktok or Snapchat or the like.

But he will soldier on, at his own pace and on his own terms. He’ll snuggle with me on weekend mornings, squeaking on about trains and planes. He will blossom as we hold him high, our shoulders strong for as long as he needs them to be. The child in him may never disappear, and shouldn’t we all be so lucky!

I hug my son and bask in his sunshine. And suddenly, that ache deep inside me dissolves.

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