It's late afternoon on a ridiculously warm winter day, and Max is riding his beloved green tractor around our neighborhood. We pass by the front yard with the gigantic trampoline; two kids are bouncing on it. Max has never paid much attention to it before but today, he stops and stares.
"You want to go see the trampoline?" I ask.
"Eeee-yah!" says Max ["YEAH!"].
So he gets off his tractor and we walk over to the trampoline. There's a 12-year-old there who knows Max and a 7-year-old who doesn't.
"Hi!" says Max.
The kids say hi. I ask if it's OK if Max joins them, and when they agree I lift him onto it and hold his hand. Max's balance is excellent on solid ground but he's unsteady on trampolines; jumping isn't yet in his repertoire of movements.
"Max, tell them your name," I say.
"Ax!" says Max.
The younger kid eyes Max warily. "Doesn't he know how to talk?" he asks me.
"Max is talking—he does it in his own way," I say, evenly.
"How old is he?" the kid asks.
"Ask him," I say. "He's right here, he can hear you, and he'd love to talk with you."
"How old are you?" the kid asks Max.
"Eine!" says Max.
"He's nine?" the kids says, dubiously. "He doesn't look nine!"
"Max, you're nine, right?" I ask.
"Eee-yah!" Max says, nodding.
"Some kids don't always look their age," I tell the kid. "You look older than 7!"
"Right," says the older boy. "You do."
"Why does he have stuff coming out of his mouth?" the kid asks. "Why is his mouth always open?"
Max can't answer this one, even if his iPad and speech app were around, so I do.
"It's just the way his mouth is, and because it's open a lot, drool can come out," I say.
I pause. "Hey, Max, tell them what your favorite movie is!" I say.
"Arrrs Oooh!" ["Cars 2!"] he answers.
"I love that movie!" says the older kid.
As the kids bounce silently and Max rides their vibrations, my mind is whirling. I still get unnerved by kids who talk about Max as if he isn't there, and how kids can be taken aback by meeting Max, who happens to be among the more uber-friendly children of the world.
It used to make my heart ache. By this point in Max's life, though, I know that kids are mostly just curious. The younger ones have no filters; they say what they think. But when they're wary, I have to try to move them past their discomfort. I've learned to answer their questions straight up, and to keep roping Max into the discussion. It's a balance of helping them understand why he's different than they are—but also helping them see what's alike, too.
The older kid flops down on his butt then rebounds to his feet. Max and I both crack up.
"Max, if you want him to do it again say 'Again, please!'" I tell him.
Max says something like that, the boy repeats the move, Max giggles and both kids smile.
Max's laugh is the great equalizer—no matter who you are, it's hard to resist. When Max laughs, kids start to see his personality, not his disability. And once you get a laugh out of Max, you want more. The FDA has not yet labeled it an addictive substance, but someday they just might.
Now the little kid falls on his butt and jumps up, looking at Max. "You like that?" he asks.
"Eeee-yah!" Max says, happily.
And then the kids are bouncing up a storm and Max is laughing and we are all there in the twilight, enjoying each other's company and a spring-like winter's day.