Ferd·i·nand the Bull

1 in 100. That’s what the commercials say are the odds of having a kid with autism. The odds are even better to know someone close to you that’s been impacted. It’s difficult to fathom what that means. Autism is difficult to understand. I remember the day my best friend’s only child was diagnosed. Years of suspecting something was wrong. Weeks of waiting to be called in to watch a battery of tests for the official declaration. And despite being prepared, it hits like a hammer. More like a two ton wrecking ball.

My favorite book as a child was Ferdinand the Bull. I still remember the part where all the other bulls would butt their heads together. But not Ferdinand. He’d just go off to his favorite tree and smell the flowers. And his mother, despite being a cow, would support him day in and day out. I never really understood what that little line meant–despite being a cow. Now, perhaps I understand it a bit even if it’s not the author’s intent. Perhaps, you are viewed as the cow when your kid screams and covers his ears in the supermarket for no apparent reason. Or, you can’t find a way to calm your child down when the toilet flushes too loud in the public restroom. When the child throws himself on the ground and pounds at the ground, people look at you and think, What a cow. I don’t know if that’s what people truly think, but I imagine that’s what it feels like as people stare on. It’s in people’s nature to create a quick point of view. It’s easier that way.

But if you peel back the onion the hard way, take a close look at an autistic child,  you’ll understand how good you have it. To walk in their shoes for one day would be more than I could handle. The shirt you wear never quite feels right. It itches. And scratches. It becomes almost too hard to pay attention. Sometimes, you just bounce up and down to feel good only for a moment. It might look odd but who cares. Or, you just ask questions about ceiling fans to start up a conversation because maybe you’re not sure what a conversation really means.

And then there are the days when everything can come together. Because you take in everything around you without filters, you know it all. I can only imagine what it’s like to take in everything. See it all. Hear everything. And it happens all at the same time. How challenging, yet what a gift. On these days, the child’s words and numbers just come out and they can even recite what their mother wore to work a year ago. It’s the day when it clicks. It’s the day when Ferdinand sits down on that bumble bee and gets stung. He runs out into the middle of that field and jumps and butts his head with the other bulls. And in the story he leaves them in the dust and gets selected to go to Madrid–the highest honor given to the biggest and strongest bulls.

It’s not in the story, but I imagine the cow cried that day. The day all the potential was realized. Each day can be harder than the next. You almost want to pull your hair out and scream on the floor too because it’s so hard to break through. But when you do, look what you find. And look at the gift you have. Fewer than 1 in 100 parents have this opportunity.

Of course, everyone knows what happens at the end of the story. Ferdinand sits in the middle of the stadium with people packed tight screaming his name. Go Ferdinand, the crowd roars. All the Picadores tremble and the Matador is scared stiff. Yet, Ferdinand just sits and sniffs the flowers. Despite being jabbed with spears, he just continues to be himself, almost completely self aware.  He does the opposite of what everyone in the stadium thinks he should do.

My favorite picture in the book is that Matador who just jumps up and down crying out in frustration. That could be a school yard bully, a teacher not knowing how to respond, or even a parent on certain days. These are the days when the bee doesn’t sting. Unfortunately, these days are more common. Bulls can be stubborn.

I can’t help but wonder if the Matador wants to be Ferdinand. I wouldn’t want to stick a bull. There are days I want to be Ferdinand too just so I can see how it all comes together, just to understand. It’s difficult to know someone until you walk in their shoes. This maybe the world’s worst quote. Because you can never do it even if you dared. You can only be who you are and make the choices that life presents.

Everyone knows the end of the story. So, they send Ferdinand home. Most likely, he is still out there doing what he does best with his mother–the cow–watching on proud. I’d be proud too. You know, it’s ok to be different.