As he looked up through the moon roof of our car, Taylor’s face lit up quick and bright as a flash. Excitedly, he began to bob up and down, frantically waiving his arms up and outstretched through the roof’s tiny opening which framed the stars and the moon like a picture against a deep blue canvass. He was barely able to contain his frantic little body as he pointed up to the round, silver object and cried out in amazement: “Look Mommy! It’s the big tiny moon!” And you know, it was big. And it was tiny too.

That was the first time I can remember my son putting a string of words together in a powerful way that resonated deeply within me. It would be a couple more years until Taylor would be diagnosed with autism and his funny manner of speech, sensory and behavioral issues would all finally make sense to me – at least to the degree that anyone can make sense of autism.

Ice Cream! Ice Cream!

The ice cream truck came rolling slowly down the street, that familiar jingle blaring loudly on its speaker. Like Pavlov’s dog, I had been conditioned as a child to run to the curb for ice cream when I heard that old familiar tune. Now, Taylor was well conditioned by it as well.

“Mommy! Mommy! Ice Cream! Ice Cream!” Without thought or hesitation, Taylor ran from the house out toward the curb, naked, bare to the world. I gasped with horror. “Oh my God! He’s naked in the front yard.” More than a little bit ashamed, which I’m loathe to admit it, I was not so much distraught that he was standing at the curb naked, but rather I was worried what the neighbors would think. Fitting in to my neighborhood “norm” was especially important to me in those days.

Taylor was six years old then and was easily at least or more a foot taller than other boys his age. He had always been quite tall. “In the 120% range” his doctor had recently told me with some surprise. Taylor looked to be a boy of at least eight, maybe even nine. And there he stood, not appearing to be six years old, but older. A boy who by all appearances, should have known better than to appear in public in his birthday suit.

It was often that way for me and for Taylor. People would look at us in “that” way – a slight tilt of the head, told me they were trying to make sense of this strange boy; trying to figure out what was different about him. His awkward speech, disconnected gaze, repetition of topics like roller coasters, indifference to people, and questions that came out of the blue – starting and ending in no particular order. How odd he was. So not “normal…”

When people looked at Taylor (us) in that perplexed way, they reminded me of little puppy dogs cocking their heads to the side while trying to figure out what was being said to them. “Strange” as I often overheard grownups and children say.

“Here! Here! Ice cream, ice cream!” Taylor cried as the truck came to a stop in front of our house. Then I heard it. The laughter rose up and like a knife, it cut into my heart. The boys next door were laughing at him – laughing their asses off. My heart sank. I wanted to save him.

At hearing their laughter, Taylor only became more excited. He jumped up and down, clapping his hands. So sweet and naive he was, he thought they were laughing with him. He interpreted their hysterics as equal enthusiasm to his own at the ice cream truck’s arrival. It was clear he thought they were laughing with him – not at him.

If it’s possible to die a thousand deaths, I did so in those moments. I didn’t so much feel pain that he was naked, and it wasn’t even necessarily the fact that he was being laughed at — though that hurt like hell, but rather it was the fact that Taylor was so innocent I feared the world would swallow him up and that he’d be the one to offer the world the knife and fork to eat him with.

The Sweet Bitter, Bitter Sweet, No Nonsense Truth

Katherine Sammons sat opposite me at the table dominating the relatively unimpressive room at the impressive, even intimidating U.C.L.A. Neuropsychiatric Hospital.

“Well, we know what’s wrong with Taylor.” she said.

“Oh my God.” I though to myself. I had searched for years to uncover a diagnosis, some form of tangible explanation to reveal the nature of Taylor’s otherwise idiosyncratic, if not odd behaviors. Now she was putting a label to these behaviors. “Our team’s diagnosis is unanimous.” she said. I held my breath.

She leaned slightly forward in her seat “Taylor is autistic.”

She paused for a moment and continued gently, calculatedly, seemingly empathetic and concerned. “The good news is that now you’ll have some answers to your questions. The bad news is that autism doesn’t go away. Taylor will be autistic for the rest of his life.”

“The rest of his life?” I though to myself incredulously. I sat there, stunned, motionless. “Do you know anything about autism?” she asked.

“Autism? Yes, I think I’ve heard of it. Wasn’t Dustin Hoffman’s character in Rain Man autistic?”
“Well, yes he was, but that’s the interesting part, Taylor is not as severely afflicted as that character was, or for that matter as severe as many others.” She went on to explain the general nature and characteristics of autism. I continued to sit there, frozen, momentarily rendered speechless.

And in that moment, ‘What is normal?’ would become a major question in our lives, and together we found our answers.

Taylor has changed my life forever. All these years later, I am a better mother, and woman, for his grace in my life. Today, Taylor is 23, lives in independent living, and has traveled the world with me to promote the 3 films we’ve made together. Today he stands on stages, and speaks a philosophy we would all do well to understand. His “normal,” is mankinds aspiration: to become become better human beings by being who we are at any given moment.