He Doesn’t Look Autistic—Sometimes First Impressions Don’t Tell The Entire Story

This is Cristian. He’s seven years old, loves to read books, play soccer, and he’s a yellow belt in karate. He’s also autistic.

People constantly tell my wife Esther and me, “he doesn’t look autistic.” Those meeting him for the first time see an energetic child with an amazing smile. First impressions are misleading, like the cute pictures of Cristian on my Instagram page. They’re moments in time; not telling the entire story.

Behind every autistic child are a community of parents, teachers, and therapists, working tirelessly to crack the code. While outsiders see quirks and oddities, this group has the challenging task of managing those quirks and oddities.

Lining things up is a trait many autistic children have.

Look at my Instagram feed; those without a direct connection to someone on the spectrum rarely get to see what goes into making that collection of pretty pictures. Nor do they experience the challenges parents of an autistic child face daily. They might see him flapping his hands or covering his ears but won’t understand why we whisper happy birthday before he blows out his candles.

The pictures don’t show the little boy who was kicked out of daycare. Cristian didn’t have the social skills to play with the other children. He played rough and pulled their hair. After several parent complaints, we sat down with the owner. In the end, we were left looking for new daycare options.

The images on my feed don’t show the sensory issues. Initially, I thought they were bullshit. They were just another case of overindulgent parents spoiling their children in an era of participation trophies. Then I took Cristian to the pool at the Y and had to convince the lifeguards to let him wear socks in the pool because making him take them off would lead to a meltdown.

We had to put his name tags on his back or he’d peel them off.

Those outside our family don’t know that it took six years to toilet train him. During the pandemic, Esther was determined to get him trained, even if it meant changing his bedding every night. We did extra laundry and went through lots of Clorox spray, but at least something good came out of our forced captivity.

The pictures don’t show the difference between a tantrum and a meltdown. Neither is fun. One is a young child trying to push the boundaries. The other is an intense response to an emotional overload. Every parent of an autistic child has felt the urgency when their child is on sensory overload. Esther and I have gone from sleepy Sunday morning to turning the house upside down because he couldn’t find his favorite stuffed animal.

As parents, we’re constantly looking for autism-friendly events. We found movies where restless children could run around the theater, and groups where they can socialize. We found soccer clinics and running teams catering to special-needs children, and are constantly looking for play dates where he can play with another child or two the way typical kids do.

Esther takes a lot of time buying Cristian’s clothes. At first, I thought it was just another Latina mom wanting her son to look like he came straight from the pages of a children’s catalog. But that wasn’t it. We’ve made peace with Cristian’s disability, but we don’t want his autism to define him. So many times, we’ve seen disabled children dressed down like they were an afterthought. Cristian is a charming, intelligent little boy with an incredible sense of humor who happens to be autistic. He has tremendous potential. So why limit him?

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