Let’s play a game, okay? I’ll give you a bunch of clues, and you try to guess who I am.
I am not a person, place, or thing. You can’t see me or touch me or smell me.
I am considered a human condition, but really I am a collection of symptoms.
He doesn’t play with other kids.
She doesn’t like it if we drive home a different way.
He’ll sit and take the vacuum apart for hours.
She doesn’t look at me.
I am the twitching finger and the flapping hand.
I am the silent toddler with downcast eyes and a tippy-toe walk.
I am a diagnosis, a disorder; a box you check on the medical form or a postscript at the end of an email.
P.S. I’m not sure if you’ve heard, but Jack’sexternal iconexternal icon been diagnosed.
I will make you have bad days and good days and bad days then good.
I live in each and every one of you, whether you know it or not.
I am the cocktail party that makes you shy and the tag on your shirt that makes you itch. I am the sticky crunch of strawberry seeds and the overwhelming hum of the air conditioner.
I make some people jump and flap, while others chew gum or run for miles or twirl their hair.
I am the Baby Einstein DVD on repeat.
I am long, neat rows of Thomas the Tank engines snaking around your family room. Seeing these rows will make you feel frantic; frustrated and nervous and empty.
I am hours of Minecraft.
Some days, I taste like shame and bitterness, burning up from a mother’s heart like sour indigestion.
But other days, I taste like the purest joy; like cotton candy and happiness and pride exploding within your heart.
He did it. He said Mama!
You can find me in churchesexternal iconexternal icon and synagogues and mosques.
I am in schools and movie theaters, playground and libraries.
For some reason, people celebrate me in April. They use the color blue. But I am actually all the colors of the world; red for Saturdayexternal iconexternal icon and yellow for the too-bright sun.
But I am also color blind.
I am in India. I am in Jamaica. I am in the Philippines and Wisconsin and Sierra Leone. You can find me in Russia and Japan, San Francisco and Belgium.
Maybe you sit across from me at your dinner table every night, or maybe you look up to see my reflection in the mirror when you brush your teeth before bed.
I live within a 10-year old boy in New Hampshire. His name is Jack.
One year, I made him afraid of wind. So afraid, in fact, that he would not go outside all winter.
The next year, it was dogs.external iconexternal icon Because of me, he wouldn’t cross the street if someone was walking their Pug or their Golden Retriever.
And this boy Jack, well, I make him work hard for the things that come naturally for others; language and jokes and facial expressions. He spends a lot of his day anxious and confused. I am his enigma wrapped up in Waffle Thursday and Pancake Saturday.
Mom it is Thursday Thursday for waffles for waffles waffles waffles.
I have been around since the beginning of time, despite the façade of normal assembled by generations before you.
There is no normal. I am here to tell you this.
It is up to you how you see me; as a nuisance, a tantrum, a disorder, or a curious lamb wearing the costume of a wolf. Can you look past my long, yellow teeth and matted hair, and find the soft, gentle child underneath?
Because of me, Mozart wrote long, complicated symphonies. His hearing was rumored to be so sensitive, he could tell the difference in the slightest tone.
Historians explain the way Michelangelo made sketch after sketch until the final pose was perfect in his rigid, unbending mind. Because of me, the Sistine Chapel explodes with light and color. Records show that Albert Einstein did terribly in school. He didn’t learn the same way as all the other kids.
And Sir Isaac Newton of the fallen apple had no friends. He didn’t understand people, and he insisted on a strict, unwavering routine.
And there is Temple Grandin; a woman so intelligent, so compassionate, that she revolutionized the cattle industry through sheer perseverance and determination.
You see, a still mind can still have great thoughts, and within even the quietest person, there is a voice. Or a painting, or a song.
I am so many things. I am hope and possibility. I am music and dreams, kindness and color. I am gravity.
So please, before you panic or judge—before you race for a cure or rush to call me weird—try to remember my value. Remember my goodness.
I will teach you the real meaning of unconditional love; a love so powerful and strong it will rearrange your heart.
At first, you probably won’t even realize that you are learning from me. I am so subtle, I am practically invisible.
But every hour, every day, every year, you and I will make our peace. You will step carefully over the long rows of trains, and admire the complicated cities in Minecraft.
Every Thursday at dawn you will turn on all the lights in the kitchen, and take out the waffle iron for a boy who at last said Mama.
You will forget normal.
I am autism. And I will make you better. I will make your family better.
If you let me, I will make the world better.
Carrie Cariello is a mother and author of the book “What Color is Monday? How Autism Changed One Family for the Better”. CDC would like to thank Carrie for sharing her personal story. An extended version of this story was originally posted on her blogexternal iconexternal icon on March 9, 2015.