On Wednesday, I walked out of our house to light the little candles and diyas I had set out for Diwali, and Kyra, who has been quite unwell this week, was right there behind me. She was dressed in bright Diwali clothes, and clearly loved the colour and flare of her skirt.

It’s been a week of watching her woebegone little face battle a virulent virus that brought on a 104+ fever, so this was a nice change, to see her smile. But as I watched our moppet laugh delightedly as the little flames flickered and stood strong against the evening’s breeze, I thought suddenly, what was going through her head. Did she wonder why we were doing this? Did she remember that we did this every year? And then, those questions took me elsewhere — how do I tell her about good and evil, and how do I tell her about god, by any name?

And, finally, was that important to me? Well, at that moment, watching her watch the lights, and touch the little Ganesha statues that we have in our foyer, well, yes, perhaps it was. Diwali, like Christmas, or other festivals, whatever your beliefs in god, any god, or not, is a time for tradition, family, a shared sense of values, and the building of bonds. I wondered how to get her to understand that concept, when she didn’t understand more tangible ones.

Happiness is....Kyra perfectly content in her grandfather’s arms; she remembers him even after he passed away.

I remember asking my father and mother, and being told about faith, and the infinite options that the pantheon of Hindu gods offers to believers. I remember, at my Catholic Convent school, the spirit of Diwali being celebrated with enthusiasm equal to our celebrations of the meaning of Christmas. And I remember bedtime stories, old ones affectionately retold, and new ones vividly imagined and dramatically expressed, each with a common theme: Good wins. Or it should.

It shaped me, as it shapes any number of us, it gives us a core; so how did I get my child to understand all this? Or the fact that she was twice blessed, once in a Hindu naming ceremony to please my mother, and then in baptism in an Episcopal church to please my mother-in-law. Yes, in answer to a question my Indian friends reared on intensely exciting family equations, might have, even in mixed race couples of different nationalities, we have all that!

I decided to ask around. I first spoke to one of the moms in a group I belong to, a group of parents of deaf children in the area. I asked her how she explained god, or the concept of good over evil, or just faith to M, her daughter, now nine. She thought a bit, and said, “Well, it wasn’t easy at first, M would get frustrated when everyone sang carols and she couldn’t hear, but as M began to sign, we started explaining the meaning of the words, and then she started reading, and it came together."

That made sense, but M isn’t autistic, like Kyra, so her cognitive ability isn’t an issue. So I then called R. Now a friend, we’d initially connected in laughter, as parents of colleagues in Kyra’s first pre-school autism class, when W, her little boy, decided my little girl was his particular pal. And he was possessive about her!

W is autistic, but not deaf like M or Kyra, so I wanted a different perspective. R was quiet at first, and then said, “Well, we’re atheists, so we don’t need to explain things, but there’s no harm for me, even as an atheist, for him to believe in anything and put it out there." She said W hadn’t asked any questions as yet, but probably would very soon, as he now goes to a pre-school run by a church, and is surrounded by neighbors who aren’t Christian — they’re Muslim and Hindu and practice their faith.

I changed tack. Forget god, what about concepts of right and wrong, or life? Now that’s where there’s a little difficulty, R agreed. “He picks up on more concrete concepts quite quickly, but he’s still cognitively behind. His fish died, I told him the fish died, but he doesn’t understand death. Autistic people need to visualize things, and I think the things that are difficult for me to explain are difficult for him to understand," she said.

And there I had it in a nutshell. The things that were difficult for her to explain were difficult for him to understand. Then I thought about what Kyra did last night. She followed me up the stairs to my office, where she’s not allowed generally, and went to this little shelf where I keep a copy of my grandmother’s Ramcharitmanas, a copy of the Bible I got from one of my teachers when I left school, and more recently, a large framed photo of my wonderful father, who lost a long battle to cancer in July this year.

Kyra went straight to the picture of my dad, her Thatha, and moved her fingers over the glass and smiled. She would smile just like that, every time his face came up on Skype. When we saw him in January, almost two years after she had last seen him in person, and then as a baby, she immediately went to be picked up, without hesitation. There was recognition, and clearly, emotion of some sort. For all the perceived lack of cognition and time and distance, she remembered him, and remembered their times together and wanted that back. When he couldn’t pick her up, being far too frail, she instead sat next to him on the table, playing with his fingers. Undefined, unspoken, that was yet love.

I thought about this some more. She clearly did recognize intangibles, perhaps she gives it no name in her head, but there is an understanding. One of the few signs she does get, is “No." And “Stop." And yes, yes, she’s told that a lot by her cruel parents! When she’s bad, she sometimes will walk back to one of us, and hold up the back of her left hand, so we can tap it lightly with two fingers. Our sign for agreeing she’s been bad and should feel remorse.

I don’t know if she’s remorseful, but I think she understands that she wasn’t supposed to do it. Even if she does do it again — but then, she’s only five. She’s clearly possessive, about her dad and I, separately too, but she also feels an urgent need to come between us and push us apart if he takes my hand. Daddy cannot hold anyone else. Only her. That’s pretty neurotypical for a little girl!

So while I can’t read aloud bedtime stories, and can’t tell her about dramatic battles and legend and myth, I’ve got to hope she’ll feel it all, and understand what we are able to explain and get across to her, through touch, and sign and sight, and imitate what we do. The only way we can do that is by example, I suppose — yes, no pressure at all!

On the god part, well, she unerringly made the right choice, with no prompting, in my study. She had her pick of everything else that was lying around, books, and equipment and ribbons and pens, and she picked up her grandfather’s picture. And found whatever it was that she was looking for. And in the process, perhaps, so did I.

The Moppet Show is a blog by Kadambari Murali Wade about her experiences of bringing up a child with multiple special needs. A new blog entry will be published every Friday. Read the previous blogs here.-

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