This was first published in TheFilAm on December 15.
Since news broke yesterday afternoon about the senseless killing in an elementary school of Newtown, Connecticut, I haven’t been able to stay away from some form of media outlet. What else could I do for the 2 hours before my son arrived safe and sound from his school bus?
Among the topics being covered in a 24-hour news cycle and stream of online content was directed at parents trying to find ways to talk about the shooting to their children. Before anyone says this to me and therefore sounds like a douche bag delivering a backhanded compliment, I will say it first— I’m glad I don’t have that problem.
If you follow me on Twitter, you may have seen me call myself an “autism mom.” I will not pretend to be an expert on grief counseling or trauma so I will speak here simply as an “autism mom.”
My son’s challenges with speech and language have brought its fair share of negatives and positives in my life. He can request what he wants and says, “It’s not that bad” when I don’t like the iPhone art app he wants me to buy. Some things are still unclear; he says he loves me but he also says he “loves” pepperoni pizza. Of course, I rely on my heart whenever possible to discern his inner meaning behind our communication and it hasn’t failed me terribly yet. (Spoiler alert: he does love me more than pizza.)
Families affected by autism will rarely say that they’re grateful for the autism diagnosis. This is one of those rare times for me and I can only speak to my experience. I am not making any generalizations and certainly do not belittle the terrible responsibility that befalls parents of neurotypical kids to make sense of a senseless act and teach them how to cope after a tragedy like this.
In some ways he is not that different from other children. He has an age-appropriate “naughty or nice” view of good and evil. I teach him that hurting people is “doing something bad” and there are consequences. The only kind of death he comprehends is the cartoon kind where there are no consequences for loss of life and in that we are similar. It was only in my teens that I lost a family member close to me and the first time death meant something real.
As President Obama said yesterday, every parent in America grieves for the families in Newtown. Death is that terrible subject we parents don’t dare touch upon if we can help it because we want to keep our children innocent. Death is unfathomable as is evil. If we can keep knowledge of evil as well as death from our children, we may have one more day of their fleeting youth to share with them. Abstract concepts in math are difficult to teach so imagine how much more difficult to start a discussion of life and death.
There is always going to be something for me to teach him to deal with in this world. In our everyday life, I try to teach my son how to cope in a society that is largely different from him and will misunderstand and dismiss him more times than attempt to know him. I try to teach him acts of love, goodness and friendship to counter the acts of intolerance he will be sure to face. One of the hardest things I have to teach him is courage because he has to face down fear and danger to earn it.
Let me have this one thing. Please. Even though I feel guilty as hell for being selfish at a time like this, don’t hold my relief against me.
I don’t have that problem of talking to my son about the loss of 20 young lives and 6 brave adult souls. This is a tragic blessing and I know it.
At the same time, although I cannot convey what I want to teach my son about yesterday’s events, I’d like to think, knowing my son so well, that if he did comprehend it all, his heart would be breaking. And if only to find some shred of goodness in an already dark world, I’m clinging on to that one thought… One less heart is breaking today.
Pamela K. Santos (@PamelaKSantos) is a do-gooder first because she doesn’t know how to be anything else for as long as she could remember. She is honored to get the chance everyday to be a mom to #ThisKidHere.