Different Just Like Me

It was a Thursday night, and I was sitting on the couch after dinner, watching the news. Noah slipped in from the kitchen and sat down next to me.

A few times daily, Noah sidles in to check on me. While his ninja-level lurking usually scares me out of my skin (because, as he says, “Screaming makes my brain all fluttery”), Noah likes to periodically sense my mood and see what I’m doing. Noah rarely comes to me with an agenda, and in this way, I wonder how he’s even related to his siblings, who never bother to call for me or come into my office unless they are prepared to ask at least 10 questions in rapid-fire succession, all of which betray their self-interest: “When we can do something fun?” or “When will my package get here?” or “How much longer until you can make dinner?”  Noah, though just likes to see what’s happening around him.

Naturally curious, Noah is our rotating satellite, hovering close by, always picking up signals.

That night, the Rio Olympics were drawing to a close, making way for the influx of Paralympians and their own opening ceremonies. So at the tail end of the national news, the network aired a story about Paralympian Mikey Brannigan, set to make an appearance in Rio. Mikey is tall and lightly freckled, with auburn hair. The youngest of three children, he has no physical handicap. As a child, Mikey was in constant motion, spinning, climbing fences, and sometimes even running away. His mother Edie remarked he was sometimes “out of control.”  Mikey’s behavior didn’t make sense to his parents.

Until of course, he was diagnosed with autism.

Noah wheeled around to look at me. We stared at each other, open-mouthed. This good looking kid from New York sprinting down a track with a professional’s cadence had autism. For perhaps the first time in his life, someone had said the “A” word, and Noah didn’t throw a fit. He didn’t snort or make a snide remark about being tossed in with a group of people who were “more disabled” than he is. No. This time, it was as if the reporter had referenced a secret society to which only a select few belonged. The look on my son’s face was one of breathless excitement. His unspoken exclamation hovered in the room:

He’s just like me!

Mikey is not just a runner, he is a runner who excels in every conceivable format. He made the high school varsity track team when he was in 8th grade, and went on to become a national champion in track and field. He’s won silver and gold in the international Parapan games. He’s set a world record at the 1,500 meters at 3:48. He was named as Sports Illustrated's High School Athlete of the Month in 2015. Mikey isn’t just a runner, he’s one of the best in the world.

He just happens to have autism.

In the interview, Mikey’s father said that kids with autism have the potential to be elite athletes—the key is just channeling their energy in the right way. In fact, for some individuals with autism, running is the perfect “stim” (self-stimulatory behavior) because it’s rhythmic and repetitive. Pounding feet + exhausted body = quieted mind. In the same way that Noah used to flap and stiffen, he does significantly less of both when he has been to football practice. Like Mikey, Noah loves to run—and on warm days, he will sometimes dart from the house to run up and down the driveway, sprinting lap after lap in a test only he understands. The U.S. Olympic Committee has already approached Mikey’s parents about developing a plan for him to compete in the 2024 Games. Not at the Paralympics. At the Olympics Olympics.

I find after years of navigating Noah’s diagnosis that we sometimes talk about autism in platitudes. We remind each other and ourselves that it is a blessing. We say that “anything is possible.” And all of this is true, of course, but easy for us—the neuro-typical 75%—to say. It is harder for the unique—and sometimes uniquely misunderstood—25% to do. As a parent, I sometimes view autism as my own hurdle to overcome, forgetting that my son is doing the heavy lifting on our journey together. That his willingness to push himself is what has him here, at 12, entering middle school and playing football and coming off a semester of straight A’s.

I'll not soon forget watching the thrill on Noah’s face as he listened to the story of Mikey Brannigan. For Noah to see that someone had gone ahead of him on the journey and done the thing once perceived as impossible encouraged him in a way I cannot. And I am okay with that. Sometimes it takes a person different than me, and more like Noah, to show him what can be done.

1 Thessalonians 5:11 “Therefore, encourage one another and build each other up, just as in fact you are doing.” (NIV)

Sarah Parshall Perry is the co-author of When the Fairy Dust Settles (Faith Words, 2004), the author of Sand in My Sandwich (And Other Motherhood Messes I'm Learning to Love) (Revell, 2015), and a contributing author to The Horse of My Heart, (Revell, 2015). Her most recent book is Mommy Needs a Raise (Because Quitting's Not an Option) (Revell, 2016). Sarah has written for numerous online and print media publications, on topics ranging from disability and family, to education and the arts. She has a B.S. in Journalism from Liberty University, and a J.D. from the University of Virginia School of Law. She has served as both Coalition Manager and Senior Fellow at the Family Research Council in Washington, D.C. Sarah has served in youth ministry for over 10 years, and also writes for ChosenFamilies.org, where she uses her boys' autism diagnoses to encourage other families touched by disability. She lives in Maryland with her husband and three children. Read more about Noah and our ordinary, extraordinary life in my books on Amazon.com. And follow me on facebooktwitter, and instagram!