The year my son Sawyer turned 12, my wife, Jen, and I began a nightly practice to help draw him out of the autistic cocoon into which he had retreated and which had made attending school impossible. For the hour before he went to bed, we would play any game he wanted, but the game had to somehow involve us. This may not seem like much of a requirement, but at that time Sawyer would have almost always chosen to play alone rather than play with others–would, in fact, have rather talked to himself than talked to other people. Like a lot of kids on the spectrum, his go-to option when he was stressed or bored was to disappear into an inner world where he could not easily be reached.
Fortunately, he loved this new practice. He called it, “Happy Fun Time.” Sometimes he and I would wrestle, and sometimes we’d do crab-walk races across the living room, and sometimes we’d all play board games. I knew it was important that he got to choose what we did. Sawyer had an almost allergic sensitivity to other people’s suggestions. There would come a time, I hoped, where we could trade off choosing what we played, but to begin with, it had to be his idea. At first, Jen and I wanted to make everything about Happy Fun Time easy and friendly.
One night a month into the practice, we were sprawled on our living room floor playing Sorry, and Sawyer was happily moving his pieces around the board, hoping to catch my pawns before they made it home. You just can’t play Sorry by yourself, I thought. Well, you could, but it would hardly be the same. There is something about sharing an experience that makes everything good about it better, the same way comedy is funnier when someone is there to laugh with you. It’s hard to understand until you’re experiencing it. You can describe it, recommend it, celebrate it, but until you’re laughing or playing with someone you can’t fully appreciate how love grows when it’s shared.
If you’re like me, you might not have paid much attention to this because you’ve been laughing and playing with others your whole life. It’s hard to notice something you’ve always known. For a while, Jen and I couldn’t understand why we were having to encourage Sawyer simply to talk to other people. That’s just what a person does. Now, as I watched him play, it occurred to me that there was no way we could ever make him play with others. All we could do was help him understand the value of the experience and then–and this was the most important part–trust that he would choose it sometimes over retreating within.
After all, Sawyer had developed his habit of retreating into himself as a solution to the problem of being with other people. That is, he always wanted to be happy, but a lot of times he found other people an impediment to that happiness with their requirements and advice and stories he didn’t want to hear. Why do something if it brings you no joy or if there’s simply nothing at all in it for you? I only ever choose to do something because I believe it will somehow benefit me. Even when I help someone “selflessly” I’m doing so because it feels better to help than to not, and I always, always, always want to feel better.
Happy Fun Time worked, you could say, as it did indeed help teach him the value of playing and being with other people. I think of Sawyer sometimes when I hear people talking about how they would like to change the world. By “the world” we always just mean other people, the ones roaming around messing everything up. How better the world would be for all of us if everyone was kind to everyone else if no one judged another because of their race or gender if no one was greedy, or jealous, or violent. If only these other people would behave differently. It’s like everyone trying to change the world is a parent with a kid on the spectrum wondering, “Why are you being violent, or biased, or cruel? What’s wrong with you? Just stop already. Okay? Just stop doing what you’re doing and I’ll be happier–I mean the world will be better.”
Jen and I certainly tried telling Sawyer to just stop pretending out loud, to just stop ignoring us, just stop retreating into his cocoon. Strangely, it never worked. The only thing that worked was trusting that when he experienced the pleasure of being others for himself, he would choose it for himself. Our job was to help him experience it. That took creativity and experimentation, but ultimately trust that he, like everyone, chooses love over fear, togetherness over separation, kindness over cruelty, when the choices are clearly understood.
How we make those choices understood depends on the person and the choice. But I can never help someone unless I believe that beyond the darkness of fear and jealousy and violence is a light as bright as what I sense within me. I must trust that it’s there whether I see it or not, just as I must trust that mine is there even when I have lost track of it in my own doubt and despair. I must trust that given the choice everyone chooses love because it’s the only choice that always, always, always feels good.
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