As many of you are aware, my son, Eric, has autism. April has been designated as Autism Awareness Month, so I thought I would share with you a side of my son’s unique personality. The good Lord has truly blessed our family with Eric. It is my hope that this writing will give you a new perspective of a child with Autism.
As with most children today, video games, role playing, and cartoons are part of the American culture of childhood. My son, Eric, is no different. He is an expert in many video games and has a particular fondness for “NintenDogs”. NintenDogs is an interactive game that allows the player to purchase and care for virtual purebred puppies. The goal is to care for your pets as if they were alive and to maintain their health and to socialize them. To accomplish this, the owner needs to be attentive to their daily needs on a consistent basis and provide play time and proper training, as well.
To my son, Eric, caring for his dogs was priority #1. In this virtual world, he owned, named, and cared for eight dogs. Their names were: Mr. John, Boxy, Lady, Brownie, Smokey, Oscar, Fluffy and Pepper. For two years, he spent hours upon hours making sure that his puppies were fed three hearty meals a day, taken out on walks, had plenty of play time with various toys and lots of love and affection. Due to Eric’s autism, he put himself on a strict regimen of “dog duty”. The timing of his daily care ritual was crucial to him. Each meal had to be provided at the exact same time each day, he had to spend a specific amount of time walking, playing and training the puppies, and bed time was a certain time each night. The health and well-being of those virtual dogs were perfect, 100% of the time. Eric painstakingly cared for and loved those virtual dogs better than most people do for a living and breathing pet.
At twelve years of age, Eric still has challenges that are associated with Autism, in how he interacts with the world and with his social skills. However, he had a venue whereby he could express his unconditional love to those virtual pets and receive the same in return.
During the Fall of 2007, Eric entered Middle School and the curriculum and other responsibilities were beginning to consume more of his time. As a result, he was hard pressed to keep up the level of commitment with his virtual friends. One evening, Eric approached his mom and me to inform us that he was aware of the dilemma he was facing. “Mom, I don’t have enough time to take care of eight dogs anymore”, he said. With a sad countenance, he continued, “I think I need to delete my NintenDogs file”. In response I said, “Eric, you don’t have to delete the file. Why don’t you just save it so you can go back to it when time permits?” Eric sadly looked up and said nothing more. Later that evening, he deleted his NintenDogs file.
The next morning, he announced to my wife and me that he had deleted his NintenDogs because he felt it was the right thing to do as he fought back the tears. His heart was broken. That evening, I went into his room to check up on him. I then noticed that he had entitled a sheet of paper, “Memories of my NintenDogs”, and had drawn an extremely detailed picture of each of his virtual puppies labeled with its name. I was deeply stirred, went into my own room and cried for my son’s broken heart.
For three days, Eric mourned the loss of his virtual dogs – sometimes waking up in the middle of the night sobbing, crying “I miss them so much!” On the third day, I brought him aside with my wife, Debbie, and commended him on how mature and responsible he was to take care of those virtual dogs. I said, “Eric, you were so loving and took such good care of your virtual dogs”. I hesitated as I could see in my wife’s eyes that she knew where I was going with this. I continued, “Eric, would you like to own a real dog”? Through his tears, he responded, “Yes”.
After a month of searching, my wife found the perfect dog for Eric. We adopted an adorable, little, mixed breed dog from a local rescue group. Just before Thanksgiving, “Coco Nut” became the newest member of our family. We certainly had a lot to be thankful for, and I think Coco would agree!
Autism has taught me many things. Through the struggles and challenges faced by children afflicted with Autism and the emotional rollercoaster the family experiences, we learn and grow in ways that are unexpected, and many times difficult. One thing I know for certain is that while Eric is capable of expressing many emotions, when he loves, his love runs deep. My son, Eric, my son with Autism, loves purely and unconditionally with a heart that is a testament to the scriptures and teachings of Jesus.
Matthew 18:3 (Amplified Bible)
Truly I (Jesus) say to you, unless you repent (change, turn about) and become like little children [trusting, lowly, loving, forgiving], you can never enter the kingdom of heaven [at all].