Moving around as a kid as much as I did, I learned important lessons — none more monumental than the window seat’s superiority. No matter where I go, I’ve got to have my forehead pressed against the window, risking a concussion on every bounce, staring at passing pine trees in the Appalachian Mountains or lakes on the Trans-Canada Highway. I would stick my head out the window, but I’ve read stories about people dying from car windows closing on their heads or necks, and my head’s far too beautiful to risk leaving it on the side of the road.
These windows are important because they help me remember all the places I’ve been and left behind in the smoke of my father’s GMC Yukon, or whatever truck he drove at the time. Before my 16th birthday, I moved four times. My dad’s job as a head coach in the National Hockey League has kept our family on the road, never settling down in one place for long.
Throughout all those moves, my worldview altered with each person who walked in and out of my life, each place I left behind, each experience I lived. My life has also been — and is — affected by a secret about myself my family kept from me until I grew old enough to understand.
Age 0–6: Cary, North Carolina
I was set up to spend my whole life in North Carolina. I walked to school up the world’s steepest staircase with my dinosaur backpack. My love for dinosaurs and nature was blessed by the gospel of Bill Nye, and I would defend his good name to the neighbour kids who found him lame. I would swim to the bottom of the 12-foot deep end at the community pool and stay there to see how long I could and rub it in my brother’s face. A normal life was all set for me in NC.
But I wasn’t a normal kid. It took me a long time to make friends, far longer than my siblings. My younger brother came home from his first day of school talking about all the friends he made while I came home saying “I don’t know if I made any friends.” I would run away when guests came over and hide until they left. I became obsessed with odd things like rabbits. That obsession led my parents began buying me stuffed rabbits every birthday to justify not buying a real one.
Most strangely, I almost never talked. When I wanted orange juice, I would bang my butt on the fridge until my mom satiated my thirst. I would point, poke, wave, shake, nod — anything but talk. If I did talk, it was in short, abrupt sentences that sounded weird, even for a young kid. My mom got me to talk more with the help of a speech therapist who said milkshakes and bubble gum would help my voice, advice I still follow today.
Mom and dad knew something was wrong, so when I was three years old my parents had me tested. The results came back with a positive diagnosis: autism. All of a sudden, my parents’ plans for my future changed. They stopped thinking about what job I’d have one day, instead wondering whose job it would be to take care of me when they were gone. Would I be able to function in regular school or need accessibility services? What kind of life would I have?
WebMD shows symptoms of autism spectrum disorder includes intense interest in certain topics, doing certain repetitive tasks over and over, and not listening when people are talking to them; all of those symptoms fit me. The doctor probably ran out of ink ticking all the boxes on my sheet.
Another behaviour of children with autism is trouble adapting to changes in routine.
That had to be disregarded for my family because Dad’s new job in Toronto meant we were heading north. I didn’t know it at the time, but those first six years would be the most time I’d spend anywhere in my childhood.
Age 7–10: Toronto, Ontario
A new city meant a new school, and maybe a chance to make friends. I skipped first grade because of how smart I was and totally not just because of Canada’s age grouping standards. I thought “OK, this is weird, but you are the coolest. You can make new friends in no time.”
“No time” became “no friends,” at least for one year. My communication issues followed me north, making me unhappy. I hated going to school. My mom saw this, along her other concerns about the school, and switched us into a private school. It took some time there, too, but I finally settled into the new school and made two of the best friends I’ve ever had: Nick and Patrick.
The three of us were as thick as frozen maple syrup. We always hung out, playing old-style Rock Band and Marco Polo in Nick’s pool, sleeping over at each other’s houses in a cycle, and talking about everything from girls to sports to how much we hated language class. I didn’t need other friends. I had the two best friends anyone could hope for.
Life was good. I got better at talking to others, continued to build up the warren of rabbits, and for three straight years I was as close to those two bros as bros could be. I knew there was nothing that could drive our friendship away.
Not even a month after grade five was done, I stared back at Toronto as my family drove away for a new job back in North Carolina. I left my friends behind after we all told ourselves the biggest lie in the world: “We’ll be friends forever.”
Along with the window seat, no single lesson I’ve learned has ever been always right. People love to say, “we’ll always be friends.” But it doesn’t work that way. In my first few months back in North Carolina, I called them every week. We talked about hanging out all summer long. I even invited Patrick to Hawaii without my parents’ permission — that didn’t go over well as we weren’t even going to Hawaii.
But soon a talk a week became a talk a month. Patrick stopped calling or picking up, and after seeing Nick one last time on a joint family trip to South Carolina, we lost touch. Nowadays, all I know about them is Nick’s a Philadelphia Eagles fan and Patrick either doesn’t have social media or is dead.
I don’t blame them for losing contact. Our lives became too different. We couldn’t talk like we used to, and it’s hard to keep in touch enough to make up for that. A small part of me still misses them today.
Age 11–13: Raleigh, North Carolina
Once again, I tried to put my old home behind me and focus on rebuilding. Unfortunately, I had to attempt this during middle school, AKA the worst period in everyone’s life. We were all angsty, mean little turds who would stab each other in the back with glee to move up the social ladder.
To try and dodge the stabbing, I became a class clown. I would always chime in with a one-liner, try a witty comeback, or whatever else it took to make people laugh and like me. I’d mock the kid with the big ears, asking if he could pick up radio frequencies, or the fat kid with an avalanche of “your mom” jokes (clearly, I’m a master of comedy). I mean, all the popular kids did it. I tried out for every sports team besides basketball, as a three-inch vertical isn’t ideal. I made sure to be wild on the field, culminating in a full-on helicopter double-hand chop of a poor kid’s head with a lacrosse stick.
I couldn’t see it, but I lost sight of who I was and changed into someone whom I felt everyone else wanted me to be. I stopped being the kid who loved rabbits, hockey, swimming, and nerdy movies and transformed into a carbon copy of my peers. I adapted to survive socially.
Humans have an innate fear of change, with that resistance being one of the five main fears surrounding change according to Forbes. But my life has been nothing but change: settling into new schools, making new friends, finding my way in a new place.
All this self-altering did gradually help me make friends, none as good as Nick and Patrick, but friends I really liked. It took a few years of work, but I eventually settled in and was ready to go to high school with my friends.
Too bad my parents decided they wanted to move closer to family up in Michigan, meaning we were on the move again. This time, we were heading to Dublin, Ohio, a town that’s basically part of Columbus, much like Oakville is basically part of Toronto.
This time, I didn’t even bother trying to stay in touch with my friends. I knew we wouldn’t, so why bother just to lose contact? Unlike my sister, I wasn’t in tears every night for three straight weeks, begging my parents to let me stay in North Carolina. I was looking sideways out the car window on the ride north, wondering if maybe in Ohio I could be myself. It should have been a fresh start. With all my stuffed rabbits besides me, I should have been good to go.
Age 14–15: Dublin, Ohio
It may seem weird that a 14-year-old still cared about a bunch of stuffed rabbits, but those rabbits are one of the few things that have been around all my life. It started with my obsession with getting a pet rabbit, and my mom and dad ran with it and bought me stuffed rabbits every Christmas and birthday as joke. The warren spread like a fun virus, and now an entire section of my bedroom is buried under the stuffed critters. I can still name all the rabbits just by looking at them. They are a soft rock of familiarity in my life.
I’m not sure how I would have adapted to all the moving without my rabbits giving me a weird sense of calmness. Change doesn’t come naturally to people, especially not those like me. As mentioned earlier, people with autism don’t adapt well to change, it’s just not how we’re wired. The only constant in my life outside of my home was the repeating script of losing all my friends and having to make new ones. For a certifiably socially awkward kid, this wasn’t a script I enjoyed.
The best I could hope for was a normal high school experience. Unfortunately, things didn’t quite work out that way. High school can be rough for even the most well-adjusted kid. Once again, I sat outside of all the social circles, in complete isolation without any sort of “in.”
The old tricks I used in middle school no longer worked. The class clown roles were already filled by more outgoing and sociable kids, so that was out. It also wasn’t enough to simply play sports, you had to be a star. Once, after some classmates learned I played hockey, they asked if I played for the varsity team. After I told them I played for the junior varsity squad instead, they said “oh” and turned away as if I’d disappeared.
I don’t believe I talked to any one of them again. I’ve always been slow to form friendships, but this time was far harder. This time, my dad wasn’t home.
To help keep our family fed and sheltered, Dad left to coach for a year in the Kontinental Hockey League for Metallurg Magnitogorsk in Russia, which explains the wacky name. His job has always meant he was on the road, but this was different. There wouldn’t be an end to the road trip; he wasn’t coming back for at least a year.
With that realization, I stopped caring about making friends. My grades slipped, my diet spiraled so badly out of control some of my sister’s friends asked her if I was anorexic, and I became a social recluse.
I stopped caring about hockey — it’s what took my dad away.
That year without him was the worst in my life. No friends, slipping grades, hating hockey — I wasn’t myself, but I wasn’t even trying to be myself.
I sat alone at the lunch table, in the back of class, in the dressing room, at home. The crushing sense of loneliness and a fear of talking to people were competing to see which could make me more miserable. The only fix was getting my dad back.
Eventually, after his team bowed out in the first round of the playoffs, he returned, and I began to give myself a chance. I began to make a few real friends. My grades returned to form, and I began to take care of myself again. I gave myself and Ohio a new chance. I wanted to see if this would be the place I would finally call my true home.
Still, something nagged at me. I wanted to know the truth on why I couldn’t make friends in less than a year, why my skin crawls in even slightly awkward social situations, why I always second guessed myself, why I wasn’t normal. A talk with my parents on our patio on a breezy, beautiful spring day slapped me across the face with that answer.
They told me the truth about my autism diagnosis from when I was three, talking about how hard it had hit the family. They told me how happy they were with how I had pushed myself into situations where I was uncomfortable, making myself grow. They told me they would always be there for me. They told me how proud they were of who I had become.
I certainly didn’t feel very proud. I felt like I’d just learned I had a huge piece of spinach in my teeth for my entire life. I felt embarrassed and weird in my own skin. I felt stupider than everyone else. In middle school, people taught me that autistic meant “retarded.” It felt horrible to think I might be too.
I looked to the internet for answers, and it explained a lot. I began to realize why I get so fixated on certain topics and completely ignore those that don’t interest me. I learned how wide the spectrum really is, and how people fall on different parts of it by a roll of the genetic dice. I learned just how many different mental illnesses there are, and how much harm labeling those who live with them as “retarded” truly is. It helped me understand what autism is, but I still didn’t accept it.
That first day back in school, I felt like a liar. No one knew what I was. I was a faker, a fraud, a masked phony fooling people into believing I was normal. Even my relationships with my best friends felt different. I didn’t believe they would be my friends if they knew. It didn’t fully register with me then, but I clearly wasn’t severely autistic, more likely I had Asperger’s Syndrome. It didn’t matter; with no way to scale myself against anyone else, I couldn’t look past the autist label I saw in the mirror.
I tried to ignore it, just focus on school and friends, but it’s never that easy. My dad interrupted a Sunday morning YouTube binge to tell me he’d been hired as head coach of the Winnipeg Jets. After getting over my shock of forgetting the Atlanta Thrashers had moved to Winnipeg and excitement he was back in the NHL, I realized what that meant: we were moving again. A contract extension early into his tenure confirmed it.
A classmate of mine came flying into our pre-calculus class to tell me what I already knew (can’t out-scoop me, Zach), followed by, “OK, bye Jake.” We still had around three more months of class, so the goodbye was a bit premature, but after that I felt a different vibe. For the second time in three years, my mom was looking for a buyer for the house. My sister was once again in tears trying to convince my mom to stay. My brother was excited to head to Winnipeg, so he could watch Jets games live instead of on TV.
Me, I felt apathy. No matter what I’d hoped, I knew deep down even before we arrived in Ohio I wouldn’t be spending the rest of my life there. After the confirmation, I constantly stared blankly out the windows of chemistry class wondering where I’d end up next, and saying a silent prayer that wherever Winnipeg was, it was a place that rejected chemistry. I pondered which friend would be the last one I would forget about once I left. I dreaded the inevitable week-long deep clean of the house my mother would subject us to once it was time to head out. While our family had moved to Ohio in 2012, I never truly did.
I was pressed up against the window all throughout the 23-hour drive to Winnipeg. I had snuck 20-plus stuffed rabbits, including Vladislav the three-foot Russian rabbit, out of their boxes into the car, so they would be with us for the journey instead of away in a box. I was sad to leave another set of friends behind, knowing we’d never meet again, but mostly, I felt empty thinking about having to adjust to a new environment again, now knowing what I was and what it meant for me.
Age 16–present: Winnipeg, Manitoba
When I got to Winnipeg, I was put in a weird situation: an all-boys high school. With the dating pool empty and the end of high school in sight, I felt something I couldn’t quite describe until I read a letter from my principal a year later. On a school retreat, my principal wrote me a letter saying, “When you first got here, you looked burnt out.” It was the perfect word choice and it clicked with me immediately.
He was right: I was burnt out. The cycle of change had steam leaking out my ears and a crash message across my brain. The lunch line of friends marching in and out of my life had gotten to me. They all had a serving of me in their lives, and in my bitter moments I wonder if any of them remember me at all. I didn’t want to change myself to make new friends again, and nothing would change that.
Except, something did. That all boys school gave me real friends, friends I’m still close to today. These friends liked the real me, and I felt truly happy for the first time in years. I finally began to like my looks and feel confident in my own skin. I was doing things for myself, not the approval of others.
Most importantly, I began working as a government respite worker, and through that job, I met Kevin.
Kevin is my age and severely autistic. When I worked with him, I saw me. I saw myself when he talked to himself imagining himself talking about the video games his favourite YouTubers talked about. I saw myself in the little hand movements he makes. I saw myself in the way he rocks back-and-forth playing video games. But I also saw something else.
When playing board games like Chinese Checkers and Uno, I began to see deeper. It took quite a few games, but I began to see a whole other side of Kevin. A merciless and vengeful side that crushes my hopes with glee (as per the laws of board games). I saw the core of his character. I stopped seeing him as Kevin-the-autistic-child and saw Kevin the cook, Kevin the gamer, Kevin the dog-lover. I saw the real Kevin.
Kevin helped me see a diagnosis is not a definition. So yes, I am on the autism spectrum, but I’m so much more than that. Realizing that made me a better man, and it’s the most important lesson I ever learned.
Besides making sure to always get the window seat, of course.