Like many little girls, I dreamed of the day when I would get married and have children of my own. The dreams would change slightly over time, but one thing remained constant. Images of a towheaded, smiling little boy named “Arthur” haunted my dreams and I just knew that one day this child would be my son. Nothing ever deterred me from the conviction of that dream, not even the day I learned that bearing a blonde-haired child would be genetically impossible for a Filipino girl like me. I just knew.
So you can imagine how my heart skipped a beat, when on our very first date, my now husband informed me that he had a young teenage son, name Arthur. My head instantly filled with images of the child he described, matching them to the boy from my dreams. Arthur was blond with blue eyes. He loved animals, kids, and he had an affectionate nature, quirky sense of humour, and Asperger Syndrome.
“It’s high-functioning autism.”
Oh. Then I told myself, “I think I can handle that. After all, this is potentially the man of my dreams. And he has a son named Arthur!”
As the relationship with my husband progressed, I researched the topic of Asperger syndrome. I asked my husband many questions and volunteered at a local charity for developmentally disabled people. I did everything I could to learn about Arthur’s condition, and what I learned concerned me.
Because Arthur lived with his mother a thousand miles away, everything I knew about Arthur’s personality was through other people. The geographical distance and Arthur’s dislike of disruptions to his routine meant physically getting to know him would be challenging. While he was basically a caring, sweet-natured boy, his difficulty expressing his feelings became exasperating to him when he entered his teenage years.
It turns out I didn’t need to worry. I met Arthur a week before his father and I got married. This giant of a boy draped his arm around my shoulders, peered down at me with a big smile on his face, and asked “How’s the weather down there?”
I fell in love with him on the spot. Three months later he moved into our house. I had instantly become a full-time stepmother to a child with autism.
They say you can never prepare for parenthood, no matter how much you try. The same is true for step-parenthood, where you are suddenly responsible for a child you did not bring into this world and had no part in raising for the first sixteen years of his life. Add to that a diagnosis of Asperger’s and you could say I was in over my head. But in some ways, I guess being a stepparent gave me an unexpected advantage. Unlike other parents with an autistic child, I didn’t experience the crushing realization that my dreams would have to change with my child’s diagnosis. I never went into a mourning period for “what could have been.” Instead I gained a child knowing full well that his Asperger syndrome meant that I still had a lot to learn. And I found that I really did love the boy.
Arthur is intelligent, sensitive, funny and unbelievably patient with kids and animals. I never know what Arthur is going to say, or when and where he is going to say it:
“Gwen, you mean to tell me you’ve never been bitten by a horse?” (Loudly asked in the middle of a crowded Costco store.)
“I should be elected supreme ruler of the universe because I have been certified in both animal and homosapien CPR.” (Written for a school paper.)
On the outside, our child looks and speaks typically. Because he looks “normal,” people expect him to behave normally too. And other ever prepared me for the fierce protective streak that surges within me whenever someone accuses Arthur of being “weird.”
“But he doesn’t look autistic,” people tell me with disbelief when I try to explain Arthur’s behaviour. They think he’s just being rude. At the very least they think he’s awkward. There was the doctor who left the room after he started to take stitches out of Arthur’s leg (he broke it and needed surgery.) Arthur looked down at the doctor’s handiwork and commented, “I fail to see the logic in how you are attempting to do this.” I could only giggle when the nurse came in to finish the job and Arthur took the tweezers out of her hand so he could finish taking the stitches out himself.
Situations like this make disciplining Arthur even more difficult. He doesn’t understand that sometimes being who he is will offend people, and that he should apologize even if he didn’t mean it. And accepting his condition does not mean we can excuse unacceptable behaviour. Arthur wants to convey the truth so badly that it physically causes him pain when he realized a misunderstanding has occurred. So he resists acknowledgment of wrongdoing with every fiver of his being. Sometimes it takes herculean efforts to help Arthur see when he is acting inappropriately or hurtful. But it’s rewarding to see him learn from his mistakes and it really makes me proud to see the fine young man he is growing up to be.
And what of the boy from my dreams? I look at this incredible, smiling, and loving young man, and my heart speaks the truth. Arthur is much better than my dreams ever were.