I would have to say that one of the hardest things in raising an autistic child is answering their perceptive and sometimes rather difficult questions. I sometimes have to really think it over before I volunteer an answer to one of my son’s unexpected questions. I also need to shield my son from the news because he is very sensitive and he easily expresses his feelings relating to sad and difficult situations and gets very emotional and very upset. I remember one such question which to this day still haunts me because I really struggled in finding the right words in answering this specific question and I had to make it understandable to him.
I will share some of his questions just to give insight into a young child’s mind who is inquisitive, autistic and very sensitive. To start this writing exercise I will have to take you back to the time of my childhood as a 2 year old and then advance to my son’s early childhood when he was a 2 year old to give some perspective.
Back in 1963 when I was a 2 year old I have no real recollection of the events or memories of the day specifically but I do have a collection of articles and books which were collected by my mom and dad regarding the tragic day in question. The day was November 22, 1963 which was a very sad day for our country and for the Kennedy family. I remember my mom telling me she was heartbroken when she heard the news and she cried and was in total shock but she still had to make sure I was fed and changed. In a way I took her mind off of that sad event for a short time.
My dad was very interested in reading about John F. Kennedy and his acts of heroism during the war and his duties as commander of the PT-109 and his days studying at Harvard University. I was born 2 days before John F. Kennedy took the oath of office as the 35th president of the United States. On that day when our president was assassinated it was the so called “end of innocence” for our country and my dad shared with me his experiences when he first heard the tragic news and what he said was that he and his fellow ironworkers stood in stunned silence when word got out and they just cried and embraced each other. They ceased work for the day and my dad was so upset about it that he just drove for miles in total silence not wanting to hear the news heading home to comfort mom and me.
Now I advance to when my son was a two year old and his mom was taking him to the dentist for an appointment. The date was September 11, 2001 and it seemed like any typical pre-fall day as it was sunny and very mild. But when the planes hit the World Trade Center and the Pentagon and the vision of the horror from the news reports became reality I was in total shock viewing the images on the internet and I was unable to comprehend the events and what transpired that day. All I could think of was getting home to my wife and son just like my dad felt back in 1963. It was surreal watching the news and seeing clips of those planes exploding into those buildings literally every 5 minutes it seemed as they kept rerunning those haunting images. All I could think of was those poor people on the planes and the ones trapped in the buildings. My son was too young to understand what was happening but now each year when he hears the dates November 22, 1963 and September 11, 2001 he gets very upset because he knows what happened on both those days.
My son learned of John F. Kennedy from seeing the books my parents shared with me and a book I picked up for my son of his autobiography geared for a young student. He knew President Kennedy was assassinated as well as Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy from learning it in school like I did and reading about them in his textbooks. He asked me a question so innocently and with real concern and I know he was very upset about it. The question as he asked it was like this. Upon seeing the story of his life and learning how he died he asked me “Why would someone kill our president and a daddy when he has such young children and a wife?” I was trying to answer him in a way that explained the truth but it was very hard because I could see my son very upset about it.
It reminds me of the time in my childhood when I learned of the plight of the Jews during WW II and the tragic loss of life at the hands of a brutal dictator. I dread the day when my son learns of this and sometimes I know we have to discuss events such as these but it is so very difficult to do so. My son has a very sensitive side about him and it really pains me to talk about these sad realities. Sometimes I wonder how the teachers approach such difficult subjects. We can not deny the truth but we also need to know how to present the facts in a way that is not damaging to a young child’s mind.
When my son realized what happened on September 11, 2001 from the yearly anniversaries and seeing the replayed images he really was very disturbed about it just like we were. He kind of understands the tragic loss of life and the total collapse of the buildings and the deliberate acts of using planes as bombs. He denies it ever happened in his mind and refuses to accept that the buildings and people who perished that fateful day are gone. A question he asked me about that fateful day was also a very sad but very perceptive question which made me have to really think long and hard in how to answer it. His question very innocently was “Why could this happen and why do people hate each other like this? I really had a difficult time answering this and I see how young children are affected by it. We brought Matty to see a psychologist to help him with his autism and when he has questions like this we encourage him to ask us or an adult such as his psychologist. We don’t like to see him thinking so much about these sad events but we also realize it is equally important for a child to express themselves and the feelings they are experiencing.
We all wish life was perfect and that everything was a happy occurrence but the reality is that life although wonderful also has sad times and painful realities that we all must experience. A sad event that hit close to home for us and for our son was the loss of my dad, Matty’s grandfather last year. The happy and memorable reality was that Matty loved his grandfather and shared many happy times with him. He remembers him and clearly has a visual picture of him in his mind. Matty and grandpa (Pop) really understood each other and they enjoyed each other’s company. Pop and Matty would always enjoy building lego towers and Pop loved to help Matty with his domino chains and with arranging his cars on the race track. They shared many happy times together and so now there clearly is a void where we truly miss him, especially Matty. One day when we were driving in the neighborhood where Pop used to live my son knowing Pop was gone asked me why we don’t go and visit him at his apartment anymore and I could sense that he missed Pop very much. I explained to him that we still have a place to visit where we can pray and express our feelings.
Another sad question Matty asked me concerning Pop was why we didn’t buy him a birthday cake for his birthday. He was so upset about it that I went out and bought a cake to celebrate his memory with Matty and the family. Matty was happy about it and he made me realize something very important about always remembering the ones we love.
I always am concerned for my son and how he views the world and I feel that we need to try to always hold on to the positive things and always look at the good things and not the sad and tragic things. My son and I enjoyed the Walt Disney movie Oceans and he was upset when he learned that sometimes we as careless in our actions harm sea life by pollution and disregard for nature. When he heard about the recent events causing such devastation of sealife as a result of the major ecological disaster resulting from the oil leak taking place now and the images of dead sealife he asks “Why things like this happen and how come we can’t stop it?” I feel it is important that he knows and understands but it is very upsetting knowing how much it affects him. Children can be so aware and perceptive and it is so important that we give them a voice to express what they are feeling and we truly listen to them and try to answer their questions as best we can and with sincerity and with great effort in being delicate about it.
It is not always so clear cut how we answer our children’s question but it is important that we do so they know we are listening to them and that we care about what they are feeling.
Edward D. Iannielli III