As I rose one recent morning, wiped the sleep from my eyes and opened the door to our bedroom I was greeted by Julian, already up and ready for the day, wearing a big grin with his arms open for an embrace. “It’s my birthday!” Yes it was(his nineteenth), so I gave him a big hug and a kiss. I knew what he wanted to do for the day, after school of course, but I decided to ask anyway. He wanted to go through this again, it was written all over his face.
“So, what do you think we’re going to do today?”
“I want to get a Puffin(a stuffed toy animal that is a relative of the penguin) and another sea creature, go to Chinese 35 and will you watch a Disney movie with me.”
“Of course, anything else?”
“Do I have any cards?”
“Wait and see. First you do have school.”
What caught me off guard about that exchange was Julian’s query referencing the birthday card. We’ve always had cards for him on his birthday but, frankly, Martina and I never thought they registered to him, just the gifts. I assumed that given his fixation on things such as stuffed toy animals and Disney movies that he paid little attention to the cards we got him.
We are quick to assume the only things that resonate with Julian are those which fall under the categories of his special interests. That his world is so insular, very little else gets in beyond his “favorites”. Well, that’s not really the case. He takes in much more than we realize. This is probably true of most persons with autism. Though they may not necessarily communicate it to those of us who care for them, you might be surprised to find out exactly what they take note of in the external world.
Moment of embarrassing truth here; Martina and I actually had dropped the proverbial ball regarding his birthday card. Each of us thought the other had picked one up. The night before, when we discovered our oversight we comforted each other with the fact that as long as Julian had his new stuffed animals, a meal at his favorite chinese restaurant and got to watch a Disney animated movie, he would be fine. Therefore, when asked by him, we both made it seem that the plan was for the card to be revealed along with his gifts during his birthday dinner.
It is amazing to think that he is now nineteen and beginning his senior year of high school. We have traveled such a long way in that period of time with our eldest son. He has shown remarkable resilience and a steely will to experience a full life, traits that I wish all of us could command. The road ahead is uncertain and causes me no small amount of anxiety but I take my strength from Julian. He is quick to say to me. “Dad I will have a great life and be successful.” Partly, he offers this so that I will provide reaffirmation. But another part is a deeply held belief in himself.
At dinner that evening we presented him with cards, Jared read a touching note he’d written about what his big brother meant to him and of course he received his stuffed animals. It was interesting to watch the reaction of the other diners as this handsome nineteen year old erupted in pure glee upon the sight of those animals. When I scanned them what I saw were smiles accompanied with looks of approval and a measure of instant understanding. Julian doesn’t even realize how he is helping to make the world more accepting, of thousands like him, simply by being himself.
That night, prior to turning in for the evening, I stood in the doorway of his room and watched him sleep. Positioned on the edge of his bed(to make room for all the stuffed animals he shares it with), arms around a large stuffed lion and the puffin in his hand, with the hint of a smile on his face, he was off somewhere in his dreams. My gaze traveled just beyond his resting body to his desk where he had carefully placed both cards we’d given him.
It was a very good birthday, for all of us.