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It finally happened – four years after my son was born. Just when I thought that maybe this whole ticking-clock business was nothing more than an old wives’ tale, I began to pine for another baby.
Still, I am not foolish enough to listen to the time bomb in my womb. I am not about to give in to those maternal urges just yet. Rather, I am, but this time around my newborn will be of the four-legged variety. My “daughter” will have fur all over and a tendency to drool.
So I will have my girl, after all. I will give my son the sibling that the world, in its collective wisdom, seems to think he needs. At last I will have a ready answer for all those pesky relatives and well-meaning strangers who ask when I’m having another, as though bringing a human being into the world were synonymous with having your wine glass refilled. It’s not fair, they say, to have just one child (as though kids are accessories that must come in pairs).
You know what isn’t fair? Having a second child when your first has autism. Adding another kid into the equation was never going to be straightforward. It would come with a host of risks: What if this child also turned out to be on the spectrum? The deck, genetically speaking, is stacked. Love isn’t scarce, but what if I couldn’t give him or her enough attention?
Many parents have another child for the simple, no-good reason that they want to give their firstborn a playmate, to spare themselves some of the monotony of playing Ninjago for the umpteenth time.
In my world, the picture looks quite different. Not only does our son not play in any conventional sense of the word – he would sooner suck his own toes than have a playmate. The sibling of a child with autism plays second fiddle like no other.
With the considerable time and money spent on therapies, with the energy and patience required to deal with meltdowns and behaviours, is it right to consciously bring another child into the balance when the scales are already so skewed?
Meanwhile, the clock ticks on. It doesn’t care about anything but its own insistence.
Well, we are finally ready to capitulate. This summer, my husband and I will grow our family, but not in a way that any one of us had expected. We are having a daughter who just happens to be a puppy.
Truth be told, we are what’s known as dog people. In a former life abroad we owned a dog, and we miss the unconditional love and company of a canine. The addition would not come as a shock. And since I work from home, there is no question of my “daughter” being left alone for any significant period of time. That’s not to say that owning a dog is the same as having a baby (though don’t you wish that just once you could ferry your toddler to obedience classes?). But it’s certainly good preliminary training for parenthood.
Besides, my son has a serious affinity for dogs. He is the rule rather than the exception, it seems. Here in Ontario, there are service dogs specifically trained for children with autism. Dogs, after all, make loyal and clever family members even though they are not likely to help out with chores.
Kids with autism are often oblivious to the dangers outside. They may stray into traffic or get lost. Much like guides for the visually impaired, service dogs tether kids as a means to keep them safe and calm. And because a service dog is legally permitted in restaurants and stores, the pet enables families to participate in outings that may previously have been off limits.
Fortunately, my son isn’t what you would call a “bolter,” so we don’t require a service dog per se. That’s not to say he doesn’t need a sibling, though. A dog could teach him valuable lessons in empathy (by anticipating and tending to a living creature’s needs) and responsibility (by helping with grooming, feeding, fetching and cleaning).
And dogs are nothing if not people magnets. Living near a park, we often stop to greet canines passing through. Dogs make great ice-breakers – a big plus for socially inept kids like my son. But more important than all that, we hope she will prove a loyal companion, wet-nuzzling her “brother” after a hard day.
Like many kids on the autism spectrum, my four-year-old finds school distressing. Not understanding how to communicate with other children makes him a prime target for bullying. Unlike most of his peers, his sister will simply accept him for who he is. She won’t confuse him with language or social expectations.
Call it rose-coloured glasses, but I like to envisage the two of them – my children – cuddling on the couch, months from now, taking solace in each other. And later, me taking solace in her after I’ve had a hard day.
That’s all well and good, but what happens when our furry family member is no longer? Death is yet another lesson my son will need to learn in time. I can't protect him forever, nor would I want to.
My only hope is that when it comes, the loss of his sibling will go some way toward preparing him to deal with the loss of other loved ones.
And there is one other consolation: At least this time around I won’t be the one giving birth.
Julie M. Green lives in Toronto.