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first person

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Illustration by Marley Allen-Ash

It’s spring of his first year of school. My quirky, sweet, quiet, funny superhero-obsessed four-year-old plays in the kindergarten playground, his Spider-Man backpack hanging off the chain-link fence as he circles the back of the playscape. I approach the perimeter, watching him before he notices me surveying the familiar scene. Children are playing on the climbers, playing with each other, laughing, shouting, running. He continues his solitary, contented loop… a small smile peeking out from the shadow of his Superman cap.

I’m watching for signs.

I’m constantly watching for signs these days. Earlier in the school year, his teacher (a wonderful teacher who will remain a source of support and information for years to come) had approached us to discuss some things she had noticed about our first-born. Had we noticed any of these things? Any other things? What other things? we wondered. That’s just him. We were provided with information about how to get more information. A bit bewildered, we reached out to our doctor to arrange for an assessment. An assessment for what? my husband asked. No one actually seemed to say. I’m assuming they’re checking for autism, I offered. But … he’s just quirky! Autism seems a pretty big leap from quirky.

We get the referral. We are put on a waitlist. We wait. We watch. I read. I gather. I run through his early childhood (happy, uneventful). Review his milestones (met). Flag the noise sensitivity (oh, the vacuum and hand dryer terror!). Mark the issue with the tags in his shirts (circling through the house, finger looped in the tag, pulling the offending material off his neck). Underline the circling. Always the circling (he’s going to be a race car driver, we joke, or a Zamboni driver). But also all the boxes that he doesn’t check. All that he is that doesn’t fit in with what they’re looking for. Still, we let close family and friends know about this “just in case” testing. “He’s just Zach,” those who love him most offer. “I’m sure it’s nothing.”

We’re sure too. Well, mostly sure. Pretty sure.

But we continue watching. We continue waiting. Our turn for the assessment comes quicker than we expect. We bring him to the hospital, to the psychologist, to the speech and language pathologist. They play with him, ask him questions, get him to do tasks. I watch anxiously. They give us forms and questionnaires. Seemingly endless. My feeling is that it is an awful lot of questions for us to answer if we’re only going to find out what we already know: that he is quirky. Except when we fill out the questionnaires, I start to think, maybe there’s more there? I guess there were other things. But not big things. And they didn’t all happen at once. They’re easily explained.

We take him home from the appointments. I wonder how they can come up with a diagnosis without knowing him more. How can they expect a four-year-old to do these tests? Of course he won’t perform well. They talked to him though, right? They can tell what a smart little guy he is? Didn’t he just tell them everything they’d ever want to know about superheroes?

We go home. We wait for results. I’m convinced there won’t be enough there to really say anything meaningful. And yet…

In the late night hours, after the kids are tucked in, I pull the tablet out and google. And read. And google more. And read more. And I go from “it’s probably nothing” to “but what about … ?” Every night.

Every day, the busyness of daycare and school drop-off and pickups, commutes to and from work, work, dinner, bath, story, bedtime. And then every night, back on that tablet.

Reading. Waiting. Watching. Still, no one says the word autism. It only lives and breathes in my late-night search history.

This in-between-knowing place? It feels huge. It feels scary. It feels lonely.

Back in the playground, I catch his substitute teacher’s eye. She’s noticed me before he has. He’s still ambling along, lost in his own thoughts. She approaches to tell me how much she enjoys having him in her class. What a delight he is. I smile (he really is).

“I have a daughter on the spectrum.” The “too” was unsaid but implied. Understood.



As well.

Just like your son.


Direct hit. You sunk my battleship.

All these months of tiptoeing around it. Carefully worded questions. Inferred references and cautious “just in case” research. The unspoken word hanging heavily in the air, almost like no one wants to be the first to mention it. As if saying it would make it true.

“I have a daughter on the spectrum [too].”

If something else is said then, I can’t tell you what it was. I stand there hoping the shock doesn’t show on my face. And I am shocked. But also oddly, suddenly, calm. As if, finally, all this time spinning, researching, playing “it’s probably nothing/maybe it’s nothing/it’s probably nothing but maybe it’s something” is finally over. She saw it. She recognized it right away and just said it. No different than “I have the same purse” or “My dog is a Lab as well”.

She made it okay.

I smile. I exhale. I smile wider.

He notices me.

“Mommy!” he exclaims, his entire face lighting up as he cuts his circle to head excitedly towards me. I reach for his Spider-Man backpack, preparing for the hug that is coming my way.

We’re going to be okay.


Tammy Smith lives in Toronto.

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