The Cat Is Out of the Bag

We’ve never told Theo he has autism, but we also never didn’t tell him. That is, we sort of decided to let nature take its course. We talk about autism on a somewhat regular basis, just in general terms. And Theo has long known that he has an IEP, and he knows he’s had assessments. But he’s never put two and two together and figured out that he has autism, and we’ve never sat him down and said, “You have autism.”

The truth is, we didn’t want it to seem like a big deal, and sitting him down to formally tell him would’ve made it seem like it was a big deal. We figured it would be better to let him come to us when he had questions, and then we’d answer them as honestly as we could.

And so, the big day arrived last weekend, quite unexpectedly, almost four years after his initial diagnosis. We were driving back from Target, and Theo suddenly said, “What’s autism?”

I said, “What makes you ask that?” I was rather surprised, since the question just came out of the blue.

Typical Theo, he answered very pragmatically: “My brain.” Of course. Of course your brain makes you ask that. Silly me.

“Well, it’s just a different way of thinking,” I said.

“Do I have autism?” he asked.

“Yes,” I said.

“It’s very rare,” Theo said confidently. (He’s absolutely dying to have something mysterious and rare. And actually, his chromosome deletion is pretty mysterious and rare. But because he doesn’t really understand that, it doesn’t really qualify to him. He’d prefer to have some rare disease.)

“Not really,” I said. “I think it’s like 1 in 50 boys that have it now. So if you put 50 little boys in a room, probably one would have it.”

“Does Sam have it?”

“No.”

“Do you and Daddy?”

“I don’t know,” I replied. “It’s hard to say. They didn’t really diagnose it when we were young, so it’s hard to know.”

“Sometimes it’s hard for doctors to know for sure whether people have it or not,” Chris added. “It’s not really easy to diagnose.”

“Oh,” Theo said. “What are we having for lunch today?”

And that was that. Suddenly, the cat was out of the bag. And it was so beautifully simple and drama-free, which was exactly how we hoped it would be. Because we both tend toward a theory of neurodiversity—that autism is simply a different way of thinking, as opposed to a medical problem that can be “cured”—we didn’t want Theo to feel as if there was something wrong or stigmatizing about it. We wanted him to feel as if his brain just works slightly differently from a lot of other people’s…and that this doesn’t make it any better or any worse, just different.

It seems to have worked. He hasn’t said a word in the week since or acted any differently, as if something is troubling him. He just matter-of-factly asked, then went on to bigger and more important topics, like what’s for lunch. Which, I think, is exactly as it should be for a seven-year-old boy.

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