"Am I normal?" my 16-year-old son asks us all from across the table while, for some reason, looking me directly in the eyes, which he doesn't do often. Is he thinking his brother and dad won't tell him the truth, but I will? He is waiting for an answer. His dad and younger brother don't say anything — they just look at me.
We're eating lunch at a Mexican restaurant and he doesn't want to order anything 'cause he can be a picky eater, not because he isn't hungry, since it's way past lunch and I'm pretty sure he's starving. "Well . . . " I hesitate, hoping to think of the perfect answer to that question because he's asked me it before and I failed him miserably.
In the past, the answers I've given him were in the form of questions, like, "Define normal?" Another one of my favorites is, "Nobody is normal — everybody is different and that's what makes the world go around," which is the answer he really hates to hear. This is the same answer my mom gave me when I told her my college roommates thought I was too serious. She answered back, "Everyone is different and that's what makes life so interesting." I loved that answer back in 1982, but my son was not impressed with it in 2010.
Parker was diagnosed with ADHD and Asperger's syndrome when he was 5 years old. I still remember that day at the University of Minnesota Autism Spectrum Clinic. I was relieved to finally have a diagnosis I could work with to help him, even if I didn't fully understand what these two types of disabilities meant. But at the same time I was sad thinking life for him would never be easy.
I was sad thinking life for him would never be easy.
Parker had gone through three days of tests, many interviews, and closed the process up by sitting at a long conference table, with six different doctors in six different specialties, ranging from pediatric neurology to pediatric psychiatry, waiting for a diagnosis. Parker was sitting next to me when the doctors were telling us why he was ADHD and had Asperger's, which was a term I had never heard of before that day. I just assumed it was a new label doctors were giving kids that didn't fit under any old labels.
I was disagreeing politely with the doctors on the ADHD label because all I could think of was how passive Parker was — he wasn't aggressive toward others — and that's what ADD and ADHD meant to me. When the psychiatrist said to me, very firmly, "He wouldn't be flicking the lights off and on right now in this type of setting, after we told him not to, if he wasn't ADHD." I hadn't even noticed that Parker was up and over by the light switches and that she had told him not to turn them off, because he always did things like that. Wow! Maybe she's right and he is ADHD. Now, what's this other thing – Asperger's? Never heard of it.
Asperger's is the more difficult of the two diagnoses because there are different characteristics and qualities that appear in each child that has it. Some of the boys and girls I know with Asperger's are very different from Parker. Some get agitated if particular objects in their room aren't lined up just right or in the same order. Parker is very structured and follows a schedule on a daily basis but is fine if the schedule varies. He can handle change, whereas some children and adults with Asperger's cannot and will appear anxious if their routine is disrupted.
I remember one year, in third or fourth grade, instead of running around outside with the other kids during recess, he would sit outside and create comic books. I remember wishing he would play with the other boys. But now, looking back on it, I'm glad I didn't make him, because he needed the creative outlook of drawing those comics to cope with the rest of his day inside a classroom.
Asperger's can have different meanings for different people with the diagnosis. To Parker, it means not being able to socialize well in small groups, sometimes knowing, but not always knowing, what others are talking about. For him it also means not always understanding the question being asked on a test. If it's not concrete with a definite answer, he may not know what the question is asking of him. However, his social skills and his test-taking skills have both greatly improved over time. I'm not saying it's been easy, but he's been able to overcome these hurdles.
Asperger's can have different meanings for different people with the diagnosis.
Parker has adapted to his family, school, and his surroundings very well. When he was little I used to have everything perfect for him by keeping his room looking just the same way, feeding him the same foods so he didn't get anxious, and making sure his mornings were calm before he went off to school. After a while, during his teenage years, he started trying new foods on his own. By relaxing my own anxiety over him only eating about 15 food items, he started venturing out on his own and trying new ones.
Parker is still waiting for an answer to his question. Instead of giving him a lecture on why it's important to be different and everyone's different, I answer emphatically, "YES, YOU ARE NORMAL!" He is happy with the answer and surprises all of us by ordering a cheese quesadilla and french fries for the first time.