Charles Jones' 12-year-old son, Malik, has autism. When he found out, Jones says, the news came as a shock — and fodder for plenty of fears.
"It was like a shot in the gut," he says. "I thought my son would be nonverbal, that he would never say 'I love you.' But when he started talking he wouldn't shut up."
In a visit with StoryCorps, Jones spoke to Anthony Merkerson, a friend whom he met at an event for families of children with autism. Merkerson, a police officer for New York City's Metropolitan Transit Authority, has kids with autism, too, both of them younger than Jones' son. And he came to Jones with a few questions — like this one: What was the hardest day he ever had with Malik?
"It's not his bad days that are hard; it's my bad days that are hard," Jones answers.
He recalls a time when he was cutting Malik's hair. Scared by the sound of metal grinding, Malik began to resist his father.
"I got so frustrated, and I forced him," Jones says, "like I held his head, and I could see it hurting him. And then afterwards I broke down."
He says Malik came to him later and told him not to worry: "I'll be OK next time," Malik said then.
"It was a stain on my brain for a long time," Jones tells Merkerson. "And I'm working on it. I'm a work in progress."
And Merkerson understands well: "I've learned — like patience, you've just got to have it," he says. From the start, he says it was difficult just to raise a son with autism. Then, his daughter was diagnosed, as well, when she was 2.
"Two kids on the spectrum. It's like a heavy load, like picking up a mountain," Merkerson says. "And back then, I was in a shell, I wasn't even explaining how I was feeling."
When he met Jones and his son, Merkerson says things began to change.
"It's been totally different, just the fact that you're not alone dealing with this. That right there changed my life, period."
Their worries have by no means gone away, though. For instance, despite being just 12 years old Malik is already 5 foot 9.
"And when he gets excited, he flaps his hands really hard. This is not abnormal, this is as normal as rain for him," Jones says. "But my fear for him has been that somebody sees him, and they interpret his body language as something that it's not. So even with a smile on his face he's going to be threatening to people."
As a police officer, Merkerson harbors fears of his own for their children. And that's part of the reason why, Jones says, "The best thing I can do is teach him what's socially acceptable, and what can be misperceived as a problem."
Not that he likes it.
"I hate to have to teach him those things, and I don't want to take his innocence away either, but in time he'll know," Jones says.
"And you know what? Who he is today, I never thought he'd be, so I know there's possibilities for him."
Audio produced for Morning Edition by Jud Esty-Kendall with Nadia Reiman and Von Diaz.
StoryCorps is a national nonprofit that gives people the chance to interview friends and loved ones about their lives. These conversations are archived at the American Folklife Center at the Library of Congress, allowing participants to leave a legacy for future generations. Learn more, including how to interview someone in your life, at StoryCorps.org.
RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:
This morning, StoryCorps brings us two dads. The son of Charles Jones, 12-year-old Malik, is autistic. He met another father, Anthony Merkerson, at an event for families of children with autism.
ANTHONY MERKERSON: How did it feel when you learned that Malik had autism?
CHARLES JONES: It was like a shot in the gut. I thought my son would be non-verbal, that he would never say I love you. But when he started talking he wouldn't shut up.
MERKERSON: What was the hardest day you've had with Malik?
JONES: It's not his bad days that are hard. It's my bad days that are hard. I remember when I started cutting his hair - I know the sound of that metal grinding scares him. He's fighting me. I got so frustrated. And I enforced him, like I held his head. And I could see it hurting him. Afterwards, I broke down. And then he came to me. And he says, Dad, don't worry about it. I'll be OK next time. It was a stain on my brain for a long time. And I'm working it. I'm a work in progress.
MERKERSON: I've learned, like, patience. You got to have it. In the beginning, just with my son was tough. Now, you fast forward to having a - my daughter. She is diagnosed. Two kids on a spectrum - it's like a heavy load. It's like picking up a mountain. And back then, I was in a shell. I wasn't even explaining how I was feeling. Then there happened to be an autism event. And I seen you here with Malik. That was the first time we met.
MERKERSON: After that has been totally different, just the fact that you're not alone dealing with this. That right there changed my life, period. How do you think people see your son?
JONES: Well, I got to tell you. I have a lot of concerns for him. My son right now is 12 years old, and he's 5-foot-9.
MERKERSON: He's tall.
JONES: Yeah, he's huge. And when he gets excited, he flaps his hands. This is not abnormal. This is as normal as rain for him. But my fear for him has been that somebody sees him and they interpret his body language as something that it's not. So even with a smile on his face he's going to be threatening to people. So let me ask you, Anthony, as a police officer, do you have concerns for my son?
MERKERSON: You know, I do, yes - my son, too.
JONES: That's why the best thing I can do is teach him what's socially acceptable and what can be misperceived as a problem. I hate to have to teach him those things. And I don't want to take his innocence away, either. But in time, he'll know. You know what? Who he is today, I never thought he'd be. So I know there's possibilities for him.
MONTAGNE: Charles Jones with his friend Anthony Merkerson in New York. Their talk will be archived in the Library of Congress. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.