Why My Family Created a Comic Strip About Autism

Image Illustrated by Mario Menjivar

Being a family with a child on the autism spectrum can feel like being on a runaway rollercoaster. There are meltdowns. There are fears. There are abrupt jolts and hairpin turns. It gets stressful. It gets overwhelming. It gets scary when your child feels those things and while they look to you for help, you feel lost.

When our son was diagnosed, he was already 5 years old. We had so much catching up to do, I was terrified that if I didn’t move fast, learn whatever I could as quickly as possible, he would slip further through the cracks. There was also ADHD, and with it the lack of sleep, the impulsive mood swings. The motor skills issues. The digestive issues. The social development issues.

Then there’s our son, who skips down the streets, squealing happily to himself as we go run errands. There he unleashes a different kind of meltdown. His hawk eyes can read a name tag from feet away without so much as a blink, and he will greet a store security guard by name, then promise he’ll come back to see him soon. No matter how tough the person wearing the badge, he melts them down like ice cream in the summer sun.

He’s a boy who memorizes quotes from movies and TV shows and uses them at the perfect moment; a boy who can imitate anyone from family to game show hosts, and whose quick sense of humor is so damn funny, I’m sure he’ll have me and his dad using adult diapers sooner than we hoped. Years into this ride, I find myself having a lot of fun along with the jolts. My life as a writer and my husband’s as an animator allowed us many opportunities to create stories, but nothing comes close to the stories our son has helped create.

Now a tween, we asked him to help us craft a comic strip about our life. Ever the clever one, he saw the chance to use his voice and sense of humor in ways he couldn’t otherwise. He approves all the storylines, pitches new ones, and inspires most of them.

Ever the grateful parents, we saw the chance for him to find a positive vehicle that we hope empowers him to express his neurodivergent worldview. So far, that’s been the best surprise turn on this rollercoaster ride.

Read our family’s comic strips at Piece by Piece.

Originally appeared on The Mighty, December 27, 2020

Why I Chose to Be the Sidekick of My Son on the Autism Spectrum

Photo by Ketut Subiyanto

I know a lot about electric hand dryers, more than I’ve got any business knowing. I know that the World Dryer Model A features a more comforting decibel than most dryers, despite its mediocre hand-drying capability. You’ll find this one in most fast-food joints and musty playground bathrooms.

I know that the Electric-Aire is small and also a quieter machine. This one is also so-so in the hand-drying department, and you’ll find these in smaller stores kind enough to be equipped with public restrooms.

Then there’s the Excel Dryer. It’s pretty loud and strong for its small size, but it doesn’t hold a candle to the ubiquitous and mighty Xlerator. It flaunts its brawn as a large, round-edged box with a sleek, built-in spout, sporting a tattoo that dares you to “Feel the Power.”

I know all this because it’s my son’s business. Not that he sells them or manufactures them. He did try to order an Xlerator online a few times, for the tidy sum of $500. He’s made it his business to know all there is to know about electric hand dryers, particularly the Xlerator. It’s the windmill to his Don Quixote. He has been terrified and fascinated by it since he was a toddler. He’s 7 now, and whenever we go somewhere new, he needs to know 1) If there’s a public bathroom and 2) What type of hand dryer it has, if any.

To know this, he must inspect the bathrooms. If the bathrooms carry a brand of hand dryer he’s not familiar with, he will stand outside the bathroom until someone washes their hands and uses it. He will tip toe to the door and see how it works, how it sounds. Only then will he resume any planned activity with peace of mind.

When our son was diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder and ADHD, he was already 5. Despite our concerns earlier on, it wasn’t until doctors noticed his repetitive round of questions and short attention span that they caught up to what we were already sensing.

When he was younger, he seemed like a very bright little boy, which he still is today. What we saw as unusual, they saw as cute quirks. Like the fact he needed to own a minimum of 13 tubes of toothpaste at a time. If we got down to 12, we’d need to go shopping. Thankfully, this only happened for about a year from age 3 to 4.

So as a parent, what do you do? Long before he was born, I made it my mission, like all parents, to be there and help him through life until he got the swing of things. 

So I did the only thing I could do. I became Sancho Panza. Yes, I became my son’s sidekick.

For those who know that Sancho was humoring the Man of La Mancha so he can access the old fool’s gold, you may question the logic of my plan. But you see, just like Sancho, I’m mining for gold in my son’s reasoning, within reason.

My son is no fool. He is smart and imaginative and funny and adorable. He’s friendly and caring and quick, but his mind works differently. The trick is finding out what I can about how his unique reasoning works.

So when his toothpaste supply came down to 10 tubes, I’d call him in. “We’ve only got 10! What do we do?” I’d ask. Then we’d run to the drugstore, where he’d gallop like a man on an important mission, and I’d trot behind him, observing. The tubes of kids’ toothpastes had different characters on them. He’d run out of the one with Thomas the Tank Engine. There was a new one for girls with Disney princesses on them. I, like any good sidekick, would help keep track of what he needed. And when he wasn’t looking, I checked the expiration dates on them to make sure they could all get used in good time. Then he began phasing out on the mission, going from 13 tubes to only two. Now he doesn’t even notice when he’s running out.

In the two years since he was officially diagnosed, we’ve had to catch up quick to advocate for what he needs. With so much time to make up, I choose to let my son be my guide. And so far, it hasn’t failed me. Through our adventures, I’m able to better gauge some of his reasoning to his therapists, his teachers, our family and the rest of the world around us.

Though I haven’t cracked the code on his fascination with hand dryers, it’s helped me understand how he tackles his fears. When he’s outside the house, he runs like a bat out of hell at the sight of an Xlerator. When he goes home, he watches YouTube videos on how they’re installed, what makes them work, the variety of models. He prepares for another day.

And I follow dutifully by his side, hoping to see that day when he does conquer it or if not, to mine one more piece of gold from him so maybe together we can next time.

This summer we got closer to the dream. He agreed to go to a movie theater and sit through an entire film. There I discovered the holy grail of hand dryers. It’s sleek and efficient and futuristic. I ran to tell him about it. “You’ve got to try it,” I pleaded. “It’s not that loud and dries your hands in 12 seconds. It’s awesome!”

Intrigued, he ran to check it out, with his dad in tow. I paced the floor, eager to find out how it went as he skipped out, looking pretty pleased. “So, wasn’t it cool?” I gushed. “Yeah!” he said. “It’s a Dyson.” One mighty blow for the windmill …

Our new mission: Jeopardy contestants. He memorizes their names, their total wins and days on the game. When they win for long streaks, it’s nuclear devastation when they finally lose. I do my best to console him, and it takes a lot. “Don’t worry, they’ll be back,” I promise. “There’s a Tournament of Champions.” He sniffles and smiles.

Gotta go, time to get the armor and saddle up.

Originally appeared on The Mighty, August 2016