A Telling T-Shirt
“I brought a surprise for you, too!” I said as I bounced up the stairs of my family's Hilton Head vacation rental last week. As I'd expected, my parents had had a few gifts stashed away for me, and now it was time for me to share something with them. With a flourish, I unfurled an extra-large Autism After 16 T-shirt. The thick black cotton shirt says, “Autism After 16: Because Everyone Grows Up” on the front.
I'd brought an extra-large shirt with me to offer my family some flexibility; either my dad or my brother, Willie, could wear the tee if they liked. I was excited to see one of them wearing it. After all, I feel proud of the work that we do at Autism After 16, and glad that we celebrated our one-year anniversary recently. Even so, I'd also had reservations in bringing the shirt in my travel bag. Specifically, I'd thought about whether or not my parents would hesitate to have Willie wearing an autism-related shirt. I wondered: How much does Willie know about autism in general, and about his own autism in particular? Would it be somehow unfair or inconsiderate to give my brother a shirt that shares his diagnosis openly with the world? On the other hand, would it be empowering for Willie to wear it, to share autism as a part of his life?
Willie wears shirts with logos on them all the time; that night, I believe, he was sporting a forest-green tee from my days at Vassar College. The shirt is what I like to call, “Vintage VXF” (Vassar Christian Fellowship), and it's been part of Willie's wardrobe for years. But even though Willie was sporting a shirt that shared a religious belief, I had a feeling that the Autism After 16 shirt would be different, and I was right. As I held up the shirt for my mom, I could see thoughts flickering across her face. She asked who I'd intended it for, and I said, lightly, “Oh, you know. Either Dad or Willie, whoever it fits best.”
To her credit, my mom shared what was on her mind with me. I could see her considering her words with care as she said, gently, “What do you think about the idea of Willie wearing it? I mean … do you think that it would be appropriate … ?” She trailed off, but I could sense the rest. She meant: What do you think about potentially proclaiming your brother's autism to the world, when he may or may not have a firm grasp on what that means, or what it might signify to others? I was touched by how she invited me into the conversation. I could tell that the topic made her uncomfortable, but I could see that she was open to what I thought.
“I've been thinking about that,” I said. “I get that it's sensitive, and I wouldn't want Willie, or you, to feel uncomfortable. And if he were to wear it, we'd have to talk with him, try and explain what the shirt signifies. I just wanted to share it with you because I'm proud to be a writer there … and, after all, I'm part of the world of autism because of Willie! But I think it has to be his decision. For it to feel right, I think it has to be something he chooses consciously.”
My mom nodded. “Thanks, sweetie,” she said. In her face I could see years of facing unexpected questions like this one, the strain of parenting in uncharted waters. All at once, I saw the uncertainty that comes with loving someone “different,” with leaving normal not just once, but over and over again. Needless to say, I hugged her tightly when we said goodnight. I didn't know what would come of it, but I felt happy to see my dad wearing the T-shirt the next day. When he said, “Thanks for this, kiddo,” I saw the gleam in his eyes, the slight smile that told me everything I needed to know. He was proud to wear the shirt, proud of his son and daughter alike, and that felt exactly right to me.