“He’s shy,” I said, when Griffin hid behind my leg at the grocery store, unwilling to say hello to the man waiting behind us or to the clerk at the counter.
Griffin was diagnosed with autism just weeks before the pandemic hit. That was when I began to sort all of the memories that made so much more sense in retrospect. The symptoms were all there, so obvious when they all came together.
Most obvious of all was Griffin’s late coming into speech. He hadn’t said a word until age two and a half. He’d pointed at things and said, “dat.”
The pediatrician had just said it was something to watch and made a note in his chart.
At the next visit, I reported he had three words.
Conner and I had been watching the new Superman series after we put Griffin to bed. Unbeknownst to us, he’d climbed out of bed and peeked out from behind the couch, silent but watchful, and seen the whole thing.
I’m still only guessing, because he snuck back into bed. But in the morning, he demanded those videos be turned on.
He put out his arms. “Super,” he said. “Fly. Sky.”
If you can imagine my relief at his sudden verbal explosion, you may also consider my consternation when, six weeks later, Superman was the still only thing he would watch. Or allow any of us to watch as long as he was awake.
“He makes eye contact,” the pediatrician said. “It can’t be autism.”
Thus began a long series of times when people told me it couldn’t be autism.
He liked to give hugs.
It couldn’t be autism.
He danced to music.
It couldn’t be autism.
He was attentive to others talking.
It couldn’t be autism.
He used his blocks to make superheroes, not just line them up in a row.
It couldn’t be autism.
Four years of this.
Four years of trying to explain to people that he was just “shy,” that he didn’t want to talk to strangers unless they happened to be wearing a Superman shirt. Four years of buying him the “right” brands of food that he liked. Four years of him crying whenever he heard other people laughing. Four years of him seeming to live in his own world.
And one year of trying to get him to go to school.
I’d tried Kindergarten for only two weeks. He was hiding under his desk the first day when I came to get him. Another day, he was in the closet and the teacher shrugged at me and said, “I tried to get him to come out, but he bit me. So I let him stay in.”
Another day, he had eaten the crayons rather than using them to color with.
And finally, the day I’d decided he wasn’t ready, the teacher had told me that “maybe it’s time you consider some family therapy. It’s pretty clear something’s wrong with him.”
Something wrong with my Griffin?
Conner comforted me that night as I wept. After Griffin had gone to bed.
In the morning, I told him about my decision about school.
He’d already started to look at the door, at his backpack and shoes that we’d made a habit of putting on before he climbed into the car.
“Daddy and I decided that you’re going to stay home today. And we’re going to do homeschool for you. How does that sound? We can do math and reading and everything at home!”
I had no idea if I could manage homeschooling Griffin while also keeping up with my on-line English classes with students across the world, but after a little while, I switched to teaching at night, which actually paid better, so I could do one fewer class a week.
As for homeschooling, Griffin loved reading anything I found about Superman. Even if the books were way above his reading level, he would sit and try to sound out words with incredible patience. He rarely came to ask me, but if I peered over his shoulder and gave him a hint, he seemed to appreciate it.
Math worked, as long as I translated all the story problems into Superman questions. Two robbers plus two robbers equals how many robbers Superman has to stop?
He gradually started to understand the number symbology on his own, but I sometimes caught him whispering stories about the numbers to himself.
“Do you think he’s ever going to move on from Superman?” Conner asked me one night, after the three hundredth viewing of the series.
“Probably,” I said. “When he’s forty-five and married with a house of his own.”
The words just came out, but I had to work not to weep after my brain repeated them over and over again. Married with a house of his own.
That seemed so far out of reach, so impossible compared to where we were now.
Whatever he had, there seemed no name for it, no help for it, and no clear path of progress to move forward. Because of course it couldn’t be autism. Except that it was.
“He’s smart,” Conner said. “He’s capable. He’ll make it.”
We held onto that hope, as Conner tried to get Griffin interested in other superheroes. Spiderman. Batman. The Hulk. Captain America. Ironman. Wonder Woman.
In first grade, I tried him in school again. This time, the teacher convinced me that she would have his back—and mine. “We’re going to get him through this,” she promised me when I went to meet her the week before school started.
She sent home notes, explaining what they’d taught in school. She sent home papers he hadn’t finished. She offered him unending encouragement as long as he tried. And she protected him sometimes from other children who were inclined to ignore or mock him.
But the last month of school, she asked to see me privately. Griffin played on the floor with a Superman figure.
And that’s when she told me that it was autism, after all. He’d been observed by the school psychologist. Of course, they wanted me to have him seen by a specialist. They gave me a name.
“It’s going to be all right,” the teacher promised me. “This will be a step to it getting better. Now that you know what’s going on, you can make sure he gets what he needs. You can start to understand the way his brain works.”
So I went to the appointments at the special school that our insurance would pay for. I watched as Griffin refused to speak to anyone, to play with the toys they offered.
“He loves Superman,” I suggested when they asked for advice.
They brought in Superman figures, Superman coloring books, Superman blocks.
He played with the Superman toys, ignored the coloring books, and still refused to speak.
“He has to get used to us. We’re in this for the long haul. Don’t give up,” the therapist assured me.
At night, Conner read Superman stories to Griffin. And for Griffin’s birthday, though he would not blow out the candles on the cake and would not open his presents, he proudly wore the matching Superman pajamas that I had found both in Conner’s size and Griffin’s.
Three days later, a package came in the mail. When Conner came home from work, he grinned maniacally and insisted that Griffin watch me open it. They were Superman pajamas that nearly matched, but in a slightly more feminine style.
Some nights, I wore them happily. Other nights, when I tried to wear something else and Griffin howled, I told Conner that I was going to get him back for this.
“I love you,” he said sometimes.
“I’m sorry,” he said other times.
And then came the pandemic.
His autism school was shut down. All the schools were shut down. This was life or death. I understood that. But Griffin did not.
So I did the best I could to manage him and my own work and Conner’s time to do his work and everything else. As long as I let the Superman movies play, Conner and I could get things done, Conner up in a makeshift office he had made out of the corner of our bedroom and me downstairs on the craft table that I’d set up in Kindergarten for Conner.
It felt like it was the end of the world. It felt like this was the way it was going to be forever. Griffin watching movies I’d seen a hundred times before and would see a thousand more times if he had his druthers.
I put in earplugs to keep myself from thinking about him sitting on the couch upstairs, worried his brain was leaking out his ears. All the fears about his diagnosis returned. What if this was the way it would always be? What if things never went back to normal for us? What if Conner never went back to work? What if Griffin never grew out of Superman and never moved out of the house and never had a life of his own?
We had groceries on delivery. We got takeout some weekends, but only from places that Griffin approved of.
“It feels like we’re in prison,” I admitted to Conner. “And I still don’t know what crime I committed to get here.”
“Griffin isn’t a crime,” Conner said, looking hurt. “He’s as much a prisoner as we are.”
But it didn’t feel that way.
I didn’t trust Griffin to wear a mask if we went outside. I didn’t trust other people to understand if he wouldn’t wear a mask.
And then one of the autism teachers sent us masks. Three masks, two adult size and one child size. With Superman shields on them in red, white and blue.
I held up the mask for Griffin and he smiled instantly. He held out his hand.
“It’s a mask,” I explained. “People wear masks to keep their germs in, so they don’t make other people sick.” Could he understand that much? We’d talked about germs before, about coughing into your elbow, and about washing your hands, but I was never sure how much penetrated into his brain if it didn’t have to do with Superman.
“Mask,” Griffin said. He held it up dubiously.
“It goes on your face.”
Griffin put it on over his eyes, Batman style.
I giggled a little.
Then he giggled and I realized he had put it on wrong on purpose.
I took out my mask and put it on over one of my breasts.
We giggled some more.
By the time Conner came downstairs to find out what was going on, we’d put the masks on our butts, our feet, our ears, and our elbows.
Conner helped us figure out a few more inappropriate places to put them. Belly-button. Knee. Ankle. Toes. Shoulder.
After dinner, I made sure that I wrote a thank you note to the teacher who had saved the day. Then I had Griffin and Conner sign it and I posted it right then, before I forgot.
“Maybe we can go out somewhere,” I said that night as I snuggled next to Conner. I felt hope for the first time in a long time.
“I don’t know. Shopping? To the movies?” But we hadn’t been to a movie theater since Griffin was a baby. He didn’t like them, and it hadn’t been worth it to deal with him.
“How about to the superhero museum?” Conner suggested.
That was a full ten hours’ drive away. It had been on a list we made last year of things we would do when Griffin achieved something—I didn’t remember what it was anymore. And now it didn’t seem to matter.
“Carpe diem, eh?” I said.
“Carpe diem,” Conner agreed.
I checked online and found out they only allowed visitors by appointment. They made sure there were never more than 50 people inside at a time, all masked.
But I got an appointment in a few weeks, and I started to get excited.
We asked for time off work and planned our trip to the superhero museum. We talked to Griffin about it, showed him the photos that were on-line, walked him through each step as his autism therapy had suggested was best when he was encountering new places and new expectations. And we practiced going outside with our new masks on. The right way. Over our noses and mouths.
Finally, I thought we were ready.
We packed up all of Griffin’s favorite Superman things. His shirts and underwear, his pajamas, his hats, toys, iPad cover and of course, his mask.
He watched his movies happily, bouncing in his seat when he got to his favorite parts, sometimes verbalizing along with the dialogue he must have had memorized as well as I did by now.
Conner took the first five-hour drive. I took the next five hours.
When we got to the hotel we’d booked, which was associated with the museum, we reminded Griffin about what to expect when we went inside. We’d seen photos, but it was nothing like in person. There were life-sized figures of every superhero you could imagine in the lobby.
Of course, Griffin found Superman immediately and jumped up and down, pointing.
“Yes, we see him,” Conner said.
I checked us in and then we went up to our room. We’d requested Superman paraphernalia, but I’d had no idea the sheets, towels, comforter and even the soap would be Superman-adorned. Even the bath curtain showed Superman, though I personally would have preferred not to have that face staring at me as I was naked.
Griffin fell asleep on the kid bed, delirious with joy at the Superman cookies that had been waiting for him.
In the morning, he got dressed eagerly, putting on his mask, and we all put on the Superman jackets that had been hanging in the closet in our sizes (we’d paid for those, but it was still nice to see them, ready and waiting for our special day).
At the superhero museum, every one of the workers was wearing a superhero mask of one kind or another. So were the other kids and families. Griffin found another boy just his age who had a Superman-logo mask on. They waved from a distance and I was sure I’d never seen him so happy before.
We went to the Superman exhibit, watched a little documentary about Superman, wrote our own story about Superman on the computer (which had plenty of prompts to make it easy) and then printed it out.
I thought that was the end of the day. I’d certainly have been happy with it if it were.
But as we were walking out of the Superman exhibit, one of what I assumed must have been the museum docents came over. He was dressed like Superman, and the muscles under his suit weren’t fake. He had a Superman-logo mask on, but he came over to Griffin and started chatting with him, as if he were Superman.
I looked over at Conner and there were tears shining in his eyes, too.
Then the docent reached to the mask on his face and tried to pull it down.
Griffin immediately started shaking his head. “Mask on, mask on,” he said. “Superman mask on.” He was frantic and ran to me for help.
I wrapped my arms around his shaking body.
“I’m sorry,” the docent said. “I don’t know what I did.”
Conner figured it out pretty quickly. “He wants you to keep your mask on,” he said.
“Oh, but I thought he wouldn’t recognize me as Superman with a mask on.”
It was true that Superman didn’t wear a mask in any of the movies.
“You want me to wear a mask, buddy?” the docent asked Griffin.
Finally, Griffin pulled away from me. “Mask on,” he said firmly. “Superman mask on.”
The docent nodded, his eyes grave. “I suppose that’s right. Superman cares about humans the most, doesn’t he? He’d always do the right thing.”
After that, the docent walked us through all of the other superhero exhibits and introduced Griffin personally to the other docents, each dressed up like the superhero they were representing. He explained to each of them about Superman wearing a mask and they all explained why their superheroes wore masks, too. They each had different reasons.
Batman, of course, wore a mask as part of his disguise.
Ironman wore a mask because it made him look “sexier.”
The Hulk wore a mask because it made him angry if people didn’t.
Wonder Woman wore a mask because her mother had made it for her.
Captain America wore a mask because it was “American.”
And on and on.
Griffin jabbered to us all night in the hotel about the superheroes, and on the drive home, he asked me to find him the Wonder Woman movie to watch.
I sighed in relief. “I guess it’s not going to be Superman forever, after all,” I said to Conner as he drove.
“I mean, now he’s really got an expertise going. He’s going to be the most popular kid in school, with all the superhero trivia in his head. And when they find out that he’s writing his own superhero comics on the side, and eventually has his own blockbuster movie, the kids are going to brag about how they knew him way back when,” I went on.
I started crying happy tears then because for the first time, it felt like there really was a future, pandemic and all. That was a future I could believe in for Griffin. It was going to be all right, just like his therapist had said.
“You know we’re going to have to come back here every weekend for the next couple of years,” Conner said, teasing me.
He wasn’t wrong.
And even when the pandemic was over, Griffin insisted on wearing his mask.