14: The Art of Hope

14: The Art of Hope

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: Raising Kids on the Spectrum

The Art of Hope

If nothing ever changed there’d be no butterflies.

~Author Unknown

The old church building is charming, though almost obscured by trees, in the middle of a small farming town. As we climb the steps, my teenage son cranes his head to look up at the tilting steeple, taking in every detail. Visitors at a special service, we enter quietly and sit close together on an oak pew, waiting with open hymnals in our laps.

Andrew is still looking around, measuring the architecture, I suspect. He has done this since he was little. Any new place is examined — room-by-room, if allowed. He used to draw pictures afterward — floor plans even. I saved stacks of them. Sitting beside him now, I squeeze my songbook, resisting the urge to hand him a notebook and pen from my purse.

Andrew has been drawing since he was two. He couldn’t press hard enough to make pencil mark paper, so we bought him a magnetic drawing board instead.

“Draw,” he would say, putting it in my lap. I would draw a picture while he watched, and then he would reach over and pull the lever to erase it. “Draw,” he would say again. Before long, he started drawing his own pictures. He drew things he loved — power poles and fountains, elevators and Steve’s chair from Blue’s Clues. Before he turned three, he drew that chair from an angle — his first three-dimensional drawing. My husband and I gaped and then failed to stop him from erasing it. We learned to take pictures of Andrew’s drawing board.

Andrew spent his childhood drawing — first on his drawing board, and then on reams of paper or with the computer’s paint program. He drew hotels, playgrounds, malls, maps and swimming pools. He drew Willy Wonka’s factory, Captain Hook’s ship and Darth Vader’s Death Star. When his speech therapist asked, “Can you draw me a house?” he replied, “I can draw you all the houses in Whoville.”

With his first box of blocks, Andrew began to build what he drew. A fire station, perfectly housing his Tonka fire truck, and a pedestal sink including an actual basin — with a red block to turn on the hot water and a blue one to turn on the cold.

We marveled. His grandmothers bragged. His aunts said, “Isn’t he amazing?” And I comforted myself — I clung to his gift. Because my son had trouble holding a conversation, making eye contact, adjusting to change. He had insomnia and anxiety and auditory processing dysfunction. My son had autism.

They say autism affects each person differently, each family differently. But spectrum parents all share one trait — worry. Our minds leap forward as we lie awake at night, riddled with questions. What will the future hold for my son? Who will be there for him when I’m gone? What kind of career can he expect? Will people be fair? Will they look past their presumptions and see his true worth?

When questions like these threatened to overwhelm me, I would look at what Andrew built or drew, and I would feel better. This was a talent — a gift from God that my son could depend on. There were so many options in his future — so many possible uses for his talent. If only we fed it, fostered it, and let it bloom, my son would be an artist one day.

But then adolescence hit and something happened that almost broke my heart. Andrew stopped drawing. Not altogether, but almost. He still drew in art class, but not at home. His art became a private thing — I was not allowed to share it with family anymore. No Facebook posts, no holiday cards designed by Andrew. His drawing pads sat half empty — those he did use were labeled, “KEEP OUT.”

“I’m not that good,” he would say, and no amount of encouragement convinced him otherwise.

I reacted badly. To me, drawing was inseparable from Andrew’s character. I tried to reboot his interest. I bought him quality markers and a drawing tablet for the computer. I downloaded better software. He played around with them, but it wasn’t the same. I wouldn’t let up. I resented those things he now loved: Nintendo and YouTube. Whenever he said, “I’m bored,” I would say, “Why don’t you draw something?”

His negative responses began to take on a worried tone. It took me too long to realize what it meant.

Andrew thought I was disappointed in him.

I was stunned. I had been wrong — as wrong as I could possibly be. My son was doing what teenagers do, after all. He was changing, maturing, making choices that were different than mine. And I was being stubborn about it, thinking that his tendency toward constancy and his limited scope of interest would at least serve him in this one way — to keep him focused on his art. Now I was guilty of leaning on a stereotype about autism itself, and pasting a label on my child that no longer fit.

Would it upset me when my typical daughter stopped playing with dolls? Of course not. Or would I assume that, because she stopped playing with dolls, her future would not include the nurturing of children? How absurd.

Shouldn’t I be encouraging his exploration? His vital, youthful humanity — his independent thought? Wouldn’t that freedom foster rather than stifle his creativity?

I apologized to Andrew. I hope he took it to heart. I took a lot of deep breaths and my prayers became more focused and fervent. My role as a mother was not to raise an artist; it was to raise a decent human being. I miss seeing Andrew’s head bent over a drawing tablet, yes. But I am proud to see his compassion, his gentleness, his honesty and his sense of humor. I love the way he asks me how I am, every single day. I love how he chooses random moments to ask thoughtful questions — so much more caring than I was at his age. These are the qualities I need to foster, the traits I need to praise.

When I learned to let go, I realized something else. Andrew may not draw much anymore, but his creativity remains. He plays Minecraft a lot these days, building cities — even worlds on his computer. He designs video games too, listing each level, making diagrams. After a trip to Disneyland, Andrew began imagining new attractions, plotting them in his head, jotting down features. He’s now taking a drafting/engineering class at school.

So what was I so worried about?

Back in the little church building, Andrew is leaning toward me, his brow drawn together in concern. “Mom?” he whispers. I wonder if the crowd is bothering him, or the unfamiliar faces and smells.

“What is it?”

“I think it must be hard to be a husband,” he says. “You have to make sure your wife is happy. Then you have to make sure your kids are happy too.”

I’m stunned. For a moment, I’m mute as well. I will answer him eventually, but first, my heart melts and soars. I know now what my son wants to be when he grows up. He wants to be a good man. And that’s the most wonderful thing he can be.

~Jennifer Froelich

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