It was a gloomy Thursday afternoon on Aug. 31, 2017. My wife, Jessica, and I were sitting in a doctor’s office, waiting to speak with a the nurse practitioner who specializes in child development, who would tell us the results of her observation with our two-year-old son, Noah. She’d asked various questions regarding what he does and doesn’t do daily, and had given him different activities to perform in front of her. Jessica and I were formulating theories about what she might say about our son and his development after we’d qualified for early intervention services in our state, receiving therapies for fine motor, communication and others. Our older daughter, Sophia, also went through intervention after not demonstrating the “required word count” after hitting 18 months of age. But once we’d put her in preschool, she never stopped talking and expected a similar outcome with Noah.
And then she walked back in, and said the words we thought we feared: “Noah is autistic.”
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Your dreams for your children are so vast that you may not realize how much hope you have for them until someone tells you the future you pictured will look different.
We received the “next steps” from the specialist, along with the “best” and “worst” case scenarios for where Noah could be in the next few years. After walking to the car and buckling Noah into his car seat, we had what we felt was the natural reaction in a moment like this: We cried.
It felt like we were in “mourning,” obviously tied to Noah’s supposed future, the struggles he would undoubtedly face and the things in life he might never get to do.
About a week later, my daughter, who was six then, began complaining of a toothache, so we made a dentist appointment for her. Beforehand, we devised a plan to ask our dentist how we could go about teeth-cleaning for Noah, since we knew there was no way he would sit still in a chair (what two-year can, anyway?). But on this particular day, our dentist was not in the office. Instead, a man we had never met was filling in for her. I don’t remember his name, but I do recall that he told jokes that made Sophia laugh, and I would describe him as “very animated.”
At the end of our visit, we talked to the receptionist and told her about Noah’s diagnosis, and our questions regarding getting him the appropriate services. She recommended we speak with our regular dentist upon her return. Then, the substitute dentist, who had overheard our conversation, came from behind the door into the waiting room area where we had been standing. “Can I talk to you two for a minute?” he asked.
“Sure?” we reluctantly responded, while he led us to the vestibule outside the office. As we walked to the small space between the doors, I wish I could tell you that I didn’t think this was super awkward or that this guy was kind of “weird,” but that would be lying.
“I just want to let you know that your son will be OK,” he began to tell us. “I’m autistic. I didn’t talk until I was five. I mean, like covered-my ears-autistic. But now, I’m married. I have a daughter. I’m a dentist. I’m fine because my parents didn’t allow me to be anything else but fine. Your son will be too.”
That cued the parental sobbing again, which followed my proclamation when I’d re-tell this story for the next several years: “Noah’s going to be a dentist!”
We never saw that substitute dentist again, but he’s a core memory embedded forever. Up to that point, it was the first and only time that we saw a tangible preview of what our beautiful boy could be in this world. I now have my second one.
Netflix’s Emmy-winning reality series “Love on the Spectrum,” which follows people on the autism spectrum as they explore the dating world, gives parents like me multiple images of how our children can interact and communicate when they’re older. Director and co-creator Cian O’Clery got the idea for the series after working on an Australian docuseries called “Employable Me,” which followed people with physical or neurological disabilities trying to find jobs. Since “Love on the Spectrum” has aired, he’s been inundated with messages from people who are touched by the show and want to be part of it.
“People love the show because they feel it’s respectful, honest and truthful,” says O’Clery. “We get many emails from people desperate to be part of it. They’ve never been on a date, and want to meet someone. It’s sad that we can’t help everyone.”
Producer and co-creator Karina Holden, whose son also has autism, says everyone can connect with these stories, because they start with one fundamental question: “What does love look like?”
“There’s something every single person can relate to,” Holden says. “That’s so demonstrative when you watch people who want to ask the most simple and honest questions about love, and that spills forth in how the series has evolved.”
The cast for this seven-episode sophomore season of the U.S. version follows a cast of singles hoping to find the love they deserve, ranging from 18-year-old Chicago native Journey, who got diagnosed only one year prior, up to optimistic San Francisco-based Steve, 64, who will never stop trying to find his life partner.
In between are two notable cast members: Abbey, 24, who we met last season when she found love with her boyfriend David, and newcomer Connor, 24, a “House of the Dragon” fanatic who is looking for someone who shares the same affection for Vikings and swords as he does.
We find Abbey and David still going strong and taking a dream trip to Africa to go on a safari to see their favorite animal: lions.
There’s a poignant moment during one of the episodes when Abbey’s mother, Christine Romeo, stands alongside David’s sisters, looking at her daughter and beau as they gaze at a sunset. They’re holding one another, sharing the most adorable kiss, the kind only seen in movies. Christine is crying, but this is different. One of the most terrifying fears for many, if not all, parents with a child on the spectrum is, what will happen when I’m no longer here? Christine has a look on her face as though, for perhaps the first time in Abbey’s 24 years of life, she’s released a satisfying exhale. That gesture conveys that she knows her daughter, as Noah’s dentist said, will be fine.
“I know there’s a lot of terms we shouldn’t use, but I’m going to talk straight,” Romeo tells Variety during an interview with her and Abbey. “If you have to learn to talk and have basic functions, it’s a disadvantage, compared to everyone else. There’s always been that fear of getting her to be able to function in the world, and build relationships without me.”
She continues: “And then David came into our lives, who has a phenomenal family. To have somebody in her life who understands her is better than any perfect man who could walk into my life knowing that she would be OK. And I know I can die, because before, I couldn’t. I was like, ‘God, you gave me this kid. You must keep me here. Can’t pull me out now.’”
Connor and his mother, Lise Smith, are new this season, after his younger brother tweeted O’Clery directly to tell him about Connor. Coming from a close-knit family, Smith shares how she leaned on his siblings to provide the human connection she knew Connor sought, before realizing it wasn’t enough. “I became complacent about having a big family, and felt like he was fine,” Smith says. “I learned on this journey that he’s craving his identity and social group, which went right over my head. The biggest splash of cold water was when I heard him say to one of the producers, ‘I’m lonely. My siblings have boyfriends and girlfriends, and get to go places. I’m always home with my parents.’ And that hit me like a knife through my chest.”
The journey for every child on the spectrum varies, and each has a different outcome. But I know one thing: I wouldn’t want Noah any other way, because then he wouldn’t be Noah.
When I asked Abbey and Connor what they want people to know about them, you couldn’t get two more perfect responses:
Abbey says: “I want them to understand the kind of autism I have, which is called communication disorder. Sometimes, it’s very hard to get my words out, but I’m doing very well. I have a lot more language now that I’m an adult, and I’ve done the work. That’s why I’ve always wanted to be a grown woman, because I knew I’d have more language.”
And before Connor shares that he’ll “hardly be able to walk without being swarmed by fans,” he wisely says: “I want them to know that while I prefer to keep to myself, I’m not afraid to step out of my comfort zone, and not afraid to take risks as well. Although getting out of your comfort zone isn’t easy, a life without risk is a life unlived.”
Unprompted, Connor also offers me a message to tell Noah, who is now nine. “Don’t let anybody tell you what he can or can’t be.”
Hear you loud and clear, Connor.
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