My youngest son Sawyer was diagnosed on the Autism spectrum when he was seven. He spent much of his time in an imaginary world, running back and forth, humming and flapping his hands and thumping on his chest. When he was deep in that world, you could call his name over and over he might not respond to you. I did not understand how a boy who did this was going to succeed in the world socially, romantically, or professionally.
So, my wife and I did the usual thing of scouring The Internet and books for the best therapy or diet that would help lure him out of that autistic bubble. Some approaches were more helpful than others, but probably the most helpful thing I did, and I continue to do with him and everyone I meet, was to see myself in his behaviors.
This was not so easy at first. To be blunt, I thought the humming and thumping and flapping were weird. Actually, when he was doing it in our living room, I often ignored it. You can get used to anything. But when he did it at the grocery store or the park, in front of all those strangers, strangers who didn’t how “normal” he could be when he stopped pretending and just talked to you, who hadn’t lifted him out of his crib as an infant, who knew nothing at all about him except that odd behavior, it was all I could do not to feel ashamed for both of us.
I worried what those strangers thought about him and me because of what I had thought of people I passed on the street talking to themselves, or arguing with phantoms, or just talking too loud to their friend on the bus; anyone whose behavior brought turbulence to the public waters, anyone who just bothered me, whether they knew they were bothering me or not. How often had I sat in quiet judgment thinking my life would be better if only these other people would get their act together?
So, it was not so easy to see me in Sawyer’s behavior. It was tempting to put him in some special category. He had a diagnosis, after all. I didn’t have one of those. But I didn’t really know how to be a parent to someone who wasn’t exactly as human as I was. Once I let myself, it wasn’t hard at all to see how like him I was. I had my own bubble into which I would retreat when it suited me when the world and its people displeased me. In the sovereignty of my imagination, I had some control, could amuse myself or inspire myself instead of waiting for what was outside of my imagination to do the same.
It made all the difference. Not that some wand was waved and suddenly Sawyer was sitting up straight and quiet at his desk in school. We eventually had to homeschool him. Rather, I simply wasn’t judging him all the time. Judgment is the end of the communication, the end of learning, the end of love. As soon as I judged him or anyone, it’s as if I’ve placed that person in a cell from which they shall not be released until they change in some way that pleases me. It seems effective in theory. We do it with criminals, why not with each other?
Except Sawyer’s autistic impulse to retreat was just a strategy to deal with the ceaseless challenge of being human around other humans. It wasn’t the best strategy, but it was the best he could come up with at that time. To help him come up with a better strategy, I had to acknowledge the challenge, acknowledge the fear, acknowledge the desire to find peace however possible when the world around you seems chaotic. You can’t talk to someone without a common language. The fundamental human search for peace, for stability, for safety, became that language.
And as I became more fluent in it, I realized I was finding my way out of my own autistic bubble. If I judge someone, I turn them into a kind of monster, a creature unlike myself from whom I must be kept safe. It creates an unfriendly world in which I would never choose to live. What choice do I have but to retreat into my own little kingdom? On the other hand, if I can learn to see past the thin veil of behavior, learn to see myself in the panhandler, the thief, the politician–all the people wanting to have happy and safe as I want to be, the world becomes friendlier in an instant, comprised as it is of people just like me.
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