Markel is a 12-year-old boy on the autism spectrum searching for his family. He can’t speak, so it’s up to us to be his voice.
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Markel and I have a few things in common. We both love Spiderman, we’re from the same neighborhood south of Boston, and we’re both autistic.
I don’t know where Markel lived before he came here. I don’t know what it feels like to be yanked back and forth between homes – to adapt to a new place without notice, leaving behind the people he knew. I don’t know many times he’s been forced to learn a new routine all over again. I can’t ask him because Markel can’t answer me. He can’t speak.
Markel gently wraps my fingers around a red marker and chooses the blue for himself. Together, we color an illustration of Spiderman web-slinging through NYC.
Markel is easy-going. He’d do just as well in a single-parent as a two-parent home. He is happy as an only child, but would adore older siblings. Judging by how popular he is with the caregivers and other kids at his group home, they would adore him right back.
During our session Markel understood everything we said. We are the ones having trouble understanding him.
Markel will make huge strides once he’s settled in a safe place and a steady routine with people who love him. I know this, because Markel showed me – clearly and unmistakably. He wouldn’t just benefit from the comfort and stability of a family – he desperately, deeply, wants to be loved, to connect with those around him, and to be understood.
When I draw close with my camera, he leans in smiling, closer, and closer, and closer, until he’s too near to focus. “Cheese” he says, while I giggle, trying to keep his nose from touching my lens. He’s messing with me. He wants to make me laugh.
It takes a manic, driven, absurd level of hope to raise a child. That hope is what gets us through the long, sleepless nights with a newborn. It’s what gets us through temper tantrums in the grocery store and arguments with our teens. Hope is vital – but Markel doesn’t have someone to hope for him. Most people don’t even realize that autistic kids can grow up to become functioning members of society. Without parents to hope for Markel, who will?
When Markel gets happy, he stims. He’ll tense his shoulders and fingers, squeezing the muscles in his face into a tight expression of excitement. He curls inward, and makes a vibrating sound in his throat. If you didn’t know better, you might think he’s upset, but he’s not – hes ecstatic. I’ve shared my white-balance cube with him and he’s over the-moon-happy with the geometric shapes and swinging lanyard. He plays with it and keeps it close for the rest of our session.
Stimming is normal and healthy. All kids do it – some more than others.
Every individual on the spectrum who has gone on to do more despite early limitations, every autistic adult who contributes to the world, every autistic writer or speaker or song-writer who was once labeled as non-verbal – every single one of them has had one thing in common. Every child, autistic or not, who brought love and joy into a home in ways their parents couldn’t have expected, they all had that one thing, too. They had a family.
Growing up autistic in a world made for non-autistic minds is difficult. Then again, so is growing up lefty in a world made for righties. It’s not better or worse – just different. Families with lefties, females, racial minorities, LGBQT and Deaf members love each other exactly as they are and wouldn’t trade them for a child who has an easier path ahead. Raising a child on the autism spectrum has it’s challenges, but so does raising any child. All of us will have our obstacles.
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