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Archive for the ‘Language’ Category

The first time I intentionally told a complete and total lie, I was four. My sister and I were playing in our brown-shag-carpeted family room in upstate New York, and we decided it would be a really, really good idea to play with the broom, which probably wasn’t the worst idea except that we were playing right near our mom’s Tiffany-style glass lampshade. Long story short, the incident ended with my mom running into the room and scanning the scene: broken lamp, shattered glass in the shag, a clammed up six-year-old, and one petrified four-year-old holding a broom twice her height behind her back. No blood at least, but still, not exactly what a mom wants to see.

To my mom’s credit, when we pointed our fingers at one another, claimed complete innocence, and disavowed any knowledge of either the lamp (which we’d just blamed one another for breaking) or the broom (which I was still holding), she didn’t laugh or scream, both of which would have been appropriate, even simultaneously. No, my mom was quiet at that moment, and that scared the daylights out of me. We knew that she knew. And she knew that we knew. And that guilt was enough to keep me from lying again for a long, long time.

These days, though, I seem to lie a lot, mostly by omission, and primarily because most people don’t really want to hear the honest answers to their daily questions. Autism doesn’t make for polite conversation. Plus, some days I’m so seriously jealous of these women and their normal lives and typical kids that I kind of hate them a little for complaining about the things I would give my left arm for.

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I remember the first time I “came out” to a stranger. I was at Target (as usual), and a woman said “hello” to Will and waited for him to respond. I said “hello” back for him, smiling and telling her, “Will isn’t being rude to you, ma’am. He has autism, so he doesn’t speak.” That night, I told my husband Marty about the exchange. I was incredibly proud of having publicly stated, to someone who didn’t need to know, that Will had autism. Doing so was a big step for me.

See, the thing about autism is that Will looks like everyone else (although, and I could be a teensy bit biased here, I do think he’s maybe a little cuter than the average kid). He “passes” for “normal” the way some of my gay friends used to “pass” for straight before coming out. People cannot look at Will and tell that he’s any different. And so I think it comes as even more of a surprise to people when I tell them he has autism.

At first, I didn’t want to tell people Will had autism because it was too painful. I would cry just thinking about autism, so I tried not to talk about it in front of Will. And I knew I didn’t have to tell people, given how Will blended in. So, in those first few months A.D. (that’s “After Diagnosis” in our house), I stuck to telling family and close friends. I even asked them to keep the news to themselves, not out of shame, but out of fear. I was petrified that a girlfriend would mention Will’s autism to another mom, and that I’d then run into that mom, say, at the park. I knew if I had a random acquaintance come up and give me her condolences (because that’s how it felt in the beginning; no one knew what to say except how sorry they were), I would completely break down on the spot.

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By Tara Cohen
When I was in fourth grade, I already needed braces. Badly. My overbite was pushing beaver-esque proportions (man, I wish I were exaggerating), and the kids at day-camp referred to me not-so-affectionately as “Chipmunk.” The orthodontist was concerned that if I had any kind of accident involving my face, those two disproportionately large front choppers would be history. But, he told us, before he could even start shifting those pearly marbles around, some of them would have to be sacrificed to the tooth fairy in order for the rest to fit properly. “You,” he informed me, “have a very small mouth.” And thus began one of the longest-running jokes in my family’s history. “Tara?? A small mouth? I really don’t think so,” they joked. “The child who speaks at such lengths she seems to take breaths only once every five minutes? The one who, at age 4, told her great-grandmother and every other grey-haired person she met that they were old and surely going to die soon does not have a small mouth. No. This kid hands off wrapped birthday presents and says, ‘It’s a sweater! I hope you like it!’ Surely you’ve mixed her X-rays up with someone else’s. This child has the biggest mouth of all time. Call the folks at that Guinness Book place. They’ll back us up. Seriously. Add some teeth. There’s room. We swear.”

Turns out they were both right. The ortho-sadist knocked me out and pulled four adult and four baby teeth from my disproportionately small jaw, and then, when I woke up, I told anyone and everyone all about it. Considering it was 25 years ago and I’m still talking about it, I’d say my family had a fair point. Considering I’m talking about it with a very straight set of healthy teeth, I gotta give the doc a little credit too.

While surgical extractions and four years of braces did resolve my “small mouth” issue and alleviate my “chipmunk” status, it did nothing to improve my “big mouth” reputation, something I continue to perpetuate even now in my 30s. While I am finally capable of shutting up long enough to let people be pleasantly surprised while opening their gifts, I’ve never quite mastered the art of keeping a strong opinion to myself. As I have no current aspirations to politics or mafia life, I try to think of it as an asset. Being loquacious (sounds better than “more-talkative-than-a-teenage-cheerleader-on-speed”) often leads to interesting conversations with people in the most random settings. Just a few months back I had the most fascinating two-hour chat with this dead-ringer-for-Obama-atheistic-democrat-with-two-goddaughters-and-a-flat-in-Soho on a flight to New York. He was the most fascinating single-serving friend I’ve ever met (If you didn’t catch that little pop-culture reference, go rent “Fight Club,” seriously.), and being unwilling to talk politics or religion, or to talk to strangers in general, would certainly not have led to anywhere near as interesting a flight.

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