Like A Backpack, She Carries Autism With Her

Betty Sweet Atkinson Special Needs

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We have a child with Autism.

It’s funny; saying it that way. “A child with Autism.” As if it were something she elected to carry around with her. As if it were something she could somehow put down.

I imagine it: a silver backpack filled with sliding bricks and squawking birds. Constantly shifting; an immeasurable distraction. Hung across her tiny 7 year old shoulders. The weight of a world.

But carry it she does. Down the stairs to breakfast. To school. It is with her in the back of the car where she rides, quiet and alone. She brings in inside and outdoors, where she kneels under the canopy of the pecan tree in our yard, searching for the smallest of things; insects and inchworms, glossy beetles that run over her hands, up and down her fingers. She is the gentlest person I know.

She wears it to sleep, so it is difficult for her to get comfortable. She carries it all summer long, to camps and swimming pools and playdates. She wears it Christmas morning, over bright pajamas with reindeer and red polka dots. She wears it to her birthday party.

It is as much a part of her as her blue eyes. Her long tan legs and flat feet.

I wonder who she would be without it. Who we would be. On time. Less emotional. We would not travel with explanations in our pockets, ready to hand them out to the strangers we disturb.

I have been asked many times what I think caused her Autism, about the burgeoning list (upon list, upon list) of things that may or may not increase the odds of having a child with Autism:

Older fathers, overweight mothers and underweight babies. Having the flu during pregnancy, exposure to air pollution or chemicals found in plastics. Assortative mating (basically; if you live in Silicon Valley and reproduce). The American diet. Unsafe vaccines if you wish to have that conversation.

I think what they really want to know is: is it possible?  Could it happen so easily? What protection exists from such hollow circumstance?

What protection exists from Autism?

I do not have these answers because I do not ask these questions. She was given to us this way, and she felt the same in my arms as any other baby would. Our love for her is equally profound.

Often, the way I speak about Autism comes out like prose, like the language of poems. I assure you Autism is not romantic. But like poetry it is concentrated, distilled from a larger experience. It is reflective. It is, in its own decisive peculiarity, beautiful.

And aren’t we all like this in some way or another, bearing shortage or surplus? Carrying around with us the things our loved ones wish we knew how to put away? Our myriad sensitivities, a plague upon our relationships. Typically benign, but categorically pervasive. We cannot put them down.

We cannot put them down, but we can be helped.

We can be helped by the enlightened understanding that we are whole despite dearth, despite excess. We can be helped by willingness, by patience. We can be helped by the knowledge that each of us are contained, kept by our bodies, these unique structures of self, whatever the self’s predicament may be.

She is there, in the bramble of bushes in the far corner of our yard, following some tailless lizard through the prickly vines and shifting light. Similarly lost, similarly found.



About the Author

Betty Sweet Atkinson

Betty Sweet spent most of her teen years watching Melrose Place, so had very different expectations for adulthood. She is the mother of three bright and brilliant children, one of whom has autism. She believes in words and the ability to change the world with them. Follow along on her .

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