Andy was there. He always comes home from the group home for the major holidays. This can be difficult for my parents. Andy, well...he doesn't like to DO much. TV has never interested him. Or the computer. He loves to be outside but you can't always do that during the winter months in New England. Of course he loves to eat. And he enjoys listening to music, so he spends a lot of time in my parents' finished basement, sitting on the couch under a blanket, listening to CDs.
On this certain day Anna was really longing for some one-on-one attention from the grandparents. I think sometimes she gets jealous of the younger cousins when she was the first one who used to have everyone's undivided attention. So I took Ethan downstairs to visit with Andy.
Ethan instinctively knows there is something different about Andy and is fascinated by him. And Andy, who isn't big on eye contact or really letting you know he cares about you being there, will often look Ethan straight in the eye and give him a little smile.
Andy was in his usual spot on the couch, with his blanket, listening to Jason Upton. He was making his usual noises, clucking his tongue, hand covering one eye, looking at his other hand. He seemed a little perturbed that we'd invaded his space. Still, I persisted.
"Ethan, do you want to sit next to Uncle Andy?" I asked.
"Yeah," he answered. He sat on the other side of the couch. He looked over at Andy. "Hi Andy," we both said to him.
His eyes lit up and he looked at both of us.
I went over and attempted to give a quick hug, which in his usual fashion Andy pushed me away, but not unkindly. His eyes were still smiling.
Ethan went up and gave him not a hug but more like a gentle tap. Andy smiled and held his gaze for a moment. Then he started running his script, one of the few scripts he has:
"Hamburger. French fries. Diet coke."
He doesn't just say this when he's hungry, my parents have told me. He says it when he's happy, as routine, as comfort, as a way of settling himself.
I've often wondered if people had worked with Andy more, if they had known more about autism back then and if the schools had given him the therapies he truly needed from the start, how much more verbal Andy might be.
"Andy, can you say this?" I asked on a whim. "Ethan, you too. Say 'I love you.'"
"I love you," both of them repeated, earnestly. Ethan thought this was a great game. His words at just-turned-4 are more clear than his uncle's.
"Let's say it again," I said, suddenly the speech therapist. The way Andy focused on me intently inspired me. A part of him is so eager to learn.
"I -" I pointed to myself. "Love -" I pointed to my heart. "You." I pointed to Andy.
Something prompted me to then add: "Now say 'God loves me.'"
"God. Loves. Me." Ethan was grinning from ear to ear. Andy seemed so focused on getting the words right. They said it again. I listened to the words linger in the air, strong and true. God loves me.
In that moment in the basement I thought, I felt, I knew that there are reasons for everything.
And while I don't thank God for giving autism, and I don't credit God for autism, and I don't have all the answers or know all the reasons, in that moment I knew that Ethan's autism could help me do something extraordinarily important.
Ethan could help me remember Andy. Ethan could help me to see Andy.
Sometimes, when a person's level of disability is so great, that can be hard. Sometimes, when I see Andy only through the eyes of my childhood, my sight is obscured by all the wrong things. I grew up viewing Andy primarily as a problem, not a person. Part of that was not me just being selfish or evil but just because it was hard to see the person, hard to see past all of the behaviors -- especially when I was a kid.
The CD player clicked and I watched how they both looked over with such intensity and anticipation, waiting for the next song. They both loved the room with its low ceilings and quiet and nothing but music.
Andy is no different than any of us. But sometimes the gulf seems great. Until I see my son, only lightly touched by autism. He helps bridge the gap. Ethan reminds me to think about what Andy is thinking or feeling and knowing Andy is even when he's not showing us that.
As we sat and the next song washed over us, I knew that despite how it may seem to the cynic, God cares and all things work together for good.
Ethan in part has Andy to thank. I never would have rushed him in to the developmental pediatrician or gotten him the therapies he needed if not for my experience with Andy. And today, now, Ethan's teachers tell me there is a chance that sometime down the road, he could actually be let go from special education (and get help under a 504 plan rather than an IEP).
This awes me.
And Andy? This I know:
God has a purpose for him.
God doesn't want Andy to feel all alone.
God wants him to have people in his life who understand.
Now Andy has Ethan. Ethan, who asks for him when no one else does. Ethan, who understands him better than anyone. Ethan, who can help make a connection.
For all this, how can I not be thankful?