A few years ago, I was standing in our backyard when I heard a whooshing that sounded as though a helicopter was about to land on my head. I ducked, then looked up, heart pounding, just in time to see a winged leviathan settling on the chimney, partially blacking out the sun. As it focused me in its sights with what I assumed was an eye toward lunch, it was joined by a partner.

Turned out two black vultures had decided - thanks to a broken window - to make the loft over our garage into a home. With beady black eyes in the middle of chicken-skin faces, sharp talons, and curved beaks designed to tear flesh, they made us nervous. All but my son Clay.

Using his iPad, Clay assured us there was nothing to worry about. "They are docile," he typed. As usual, he was right. The vultures never left, parented three comically unattractive offspring, and now feel a bit like part of the family. We left the broken window broken.

That wasn't the first, but it was one of the more poignant lessons I have learned from my younger son.

Lesson No. 1. Don't judge that book until you've cracked it open and read a fair number of pages.

It is a message that hits home for Clay daily. He has autism. People eye him nervously when we come squawking down the aisle at the hardware store. When we swim at the pool in the complex where my parents live, Clay settles in one corner while the rest of the swimmers gravitate to the others, keeping a wary eye on his noisy splashing and tendency to walk away with their noodles.

It wasn't until high school, when this nonverbal kid started typing with light support, that teachers and aides and some of the rest of us accepted that he can read, do math, and has a strong internal life, with wants and feelings and a desire to have a productive life - just like everyone else.

Which leads to:

Lesson No. 2. Go with the flow or risk being washed up on the shore, waterlogged and muscles aching, wondering why you ever thought you could fight that particular current.

We don't have central air-conditioning in our home, and the Willy Wonka wiring we inherited precludes putting a window unit in Clay's bedroom without shorting out half the neighborhood and much of the Eastern Seaboard. As a result, the little guy's bedroom becomes uninhabitable for most of the summer months. No problem for Clay. He just beds down wherever he happens to fall asleep, which is frequently the living-room sofa. Of course, waking up to the sofas shifted, pillows scattered, and comforters spread randomly through the house every morning is a frontal assault on my need to keep the chaos at bay in our home. But I take lots of deep breaths and follow his lead. Save that energy for the important challenges, is the message I take from him. Sure, he gets frustrated sometimes, but for the most part, Clay accepts the locks on our refrigerator and pantry, his inability to verbalize what he wants, and the thousands of other constraints in his life. It's just the way things are for now. Which, of course, leads to the next lesson.

Lesson No. 3. No matter the obstacles, challenges, or fallout, keep smiling.

Clay faces a condition that has altered the wiring in his brain, making everyday activities the rest of us take for granted feel like climbing Mount Everest. He can't fully dress himself. Tying his shoes is beyond his motor skills. So is showering by himself, leaving him no privacy. He will never drive and is unlikely to ever marry or have children. As difficult as it is for him, he wants to learn - history, math, science - but he spends much of his time in school practicing "life skills" like vacuuming, sorting change, ordering food - feeling unchallenged and worried about his future. And, yet, when I come home at the end of the day, tired, frustrated, stewing over small matters, he greets me with that smile.

One windy Saturday morning last spring, I watched him compete in the Special Olympics. He ran in one race. A high school sophomore with a heart and maturity beyond his years guided him along the track, keeping him headed for the finish line. The little guy doesn't run, as much as hop and skip down the track. When he reached the finish line, he kept going, skip-jumping another 50 yards, making us laugh as his buddy chased him down.

My sister-in-law took some pictures of the race, and here is what caught my eye when I looked at them. It wasn't the smile on Clay's face as he competed, it was the smiles on the people in the crowd beside him who watched him motor down the track. That ability to keep smiling despite the challenging hand the world has dealt you (and spread that warmth to others) is a lesson I try to take to heart - although I fail more than I succeed. He shames me in how easily he succeeds.

Clay turned 18 this summer. It has not been an easy journey for him or for us. Not one that either of us would have chosen. But it has been an education, and I wanted to share some of the lessons Clay has taught me because I think there is wisdom there. Maybe those lessons can help others, and I know that would make the little fellow happy.