I remember sitting at the mall and watching the kids play with each other. They ran in Cailyn’s area a few times and appeared to be around the same age as her. They chased each other around the slide and over to the miniature house. I saw them peeking out the windows at each other and laughing. Cailyn walked over to the bead maze and pulled at the wiring. It made an annoying metallic rattling sound, which she apparently found amusing. I was done.
“Come on, Cailyn. We’re done playing, now.” I said, walking towards her with my hand outstretched. She grabbed it and followed me, as usual, without a word. On the way out, we saw young kids everywhere. To the left, a little girl asking her mom for a cookie. On the right, a young boy sitting patiently on a bench and talking with his dad. As I put Cailyn into the car, a family just down the row was walking in. The father was holding his crying little girl and he promised if she was good, he’d get her something. She smiled back at him.
We use benchmarks everywhere in life, often without intent and sometimes without knowledge. We define ourselves using comparisons to others and can’t help but feel validated when our number rises over the 50th percentile. We live in a world of hierarchies, salary scales, grade point averages, conference standings, friend counts, and SAT scores. With time and immersion into this culture, our self-worth becomes defined less by our individual achievements and more by how that compares to our peers. We begin to subconsciously (and often erroneously) define “normal,” only to be disappointed when we don’t attain that standard. This fictional, sometimes faceless enemy manifests itself in many ways, driving fathers to overwork, pushing young women to eating disorders, and generally resulting in levels of depression.
Comparing Cailyn to other children began with the purest of intentions. I wanted to track her milestones so that I could make sure she was on track to be successful. Once she started to fall behind, I began that slow spiral downward. It started with a healthy concern for her, but slid to jealousy, resentment, and anger. These emotions welled up to varying degrees whenever I saw children interacting “normally” with their families. I remember being so ashamed of having these emotions. I love my daughter far more than life, itself, and I’d never trade her for anything. Still, I couldn’t stop the feelings from creeping in. The only way to contain them was to withdraw completely.
I anticipated that comparisons would fade away in the world of Autism, but I found the classifications still existed. The Autism “Spectrum,” includes not only severe cases, such as Cailyn, but also moderate and high-functioning individuals. It even includes children, who are not even classified as having “Autism.” Others have almost unnoticeable symptoms. When Cailyn received her diagnosis, one of the first things I did was look up other children with that diagnosis, to try to establish a baseline for what we should expect for her progress.
When you talk to other parents dealing with Autism, the subject of diagnosis always comes up. We obviously want to know severity, symptoms, and treatments. Secretly, I always wanted to hear that Cailyn didn’t belong there. It seems sick, now, but there was a time where I’d observe other Autistic children and look for ways that Cailyn was ahead. I think I was reaching for a small ray of hope that she wasn’t as severe as the doctor said, or even that she was breaking free of the condition. With older children, it was also a good way to see what we could expect for the future. I was already setting standards for her, years in advance.
Eventually, I had a personal breakthrough. I began looking more closely and soon realized that, without exception, there are no perfect comparisons of children with Autism. For that matter, there are no perfect comparisons between any two children. This has never been more evident than with Cailyn and Dalton who, although they come from the same parents, could not be more opposite. Yet, in spite of these differences, each has my complete and equal love and pride.
Even with the exact same parents, a new baby has approximately a one in four trillion chance of being born with a identical significant genetic makeup. That’s excluding an infinitesimal number of potential genetic mutations. The beauty of this complete uniqueness is that it gives us an opportunity to operate independently of expectations set by others. It allows us to pursue success, defined by pride in our own achievements and not solely on a comparison to others. It breaks Cailyn free of the fate of other children, who just happen to have shared similar symptoms. It also provides me with an escape from my preconceptions of what my child would be, focusing instead on who she is.
Although man searches for structure, consistency, and control, God shines through in helplessness and chaos. If not for Cailyn, who is just one of the Earth’s seven billion statistical impossibilities, I may have missed the point. She is extraordinary as a result of her traits and not in spite of them. Her future is exciting due to the fact that it’s yet to be written. Most importantly, the true beauty of a relationship is diminished amidst the gray canvas of the “typical.” The bond that Cailyn and I share is significant because it is completely and erratically unique.