Here is a little story about my oldest son, Max. Once upon a time there was a boy who was an extremely good student. He received nearly straight A’s in high school without studying, spent a couple years on the debate team, scored unnecessarily high on his SATs, and was one of two children chosen to address his graduating class at commencement. Oh, and he did a stand up routine at the end-of-the-year talent show. He killed. The End.
Not a very interesting story, is it? Parents, their children, and their children’s achievements form a kind of Bermuda Triangle of storytelling boredom. There is absolutely nothing in it for the audience of such stories except to say, “Congratulations.” Stories are an opportunity for the artist and audience to meet in their imagination, a meeting that is achieved, in part, by a sympathetic protagonist with whom the audience can identify. If told well, the audience becomes the protagonist, suffers and rejoices as he would, so that by the end the story is as much about the one hearing it as telling it.
A better version of the story about Max, then, would be this: Once upon a time, Max was an extremely resistant student. Though he was mentally quick, he hated doing his schoolwork. Every night was like a hostage negotiation come homework time. He didn’t get along particularly well with his teachers. And then, somewhere around 5th grade, it all changed. He did his homework without a word from us. He got along with his teachers. From that moment forward, school was more or less easy. It was all very mysterious.
Later, he explained that he saw that school was just a game. There were certain places he wanted to go in his life and he understood that playing this game called school could help him get there. So he stopped fighting the system, rowed his boat with the river instead of against it, and now he’s off at college still enjoying school. The End.
Which brings me to my other son, Sawyer, who was not such a good student. One of the first hurdles I had to overcome with Sawyer was his lack of achievement. Like a lot of kids we place on The Spectrum, he seemed to excel at nothing. How was I going to identify with him and relate to him and claim him as my own if all he did was fail? At the time he was first diagnosed, I was already feeling like a failure because I couldn’t seem to publish a book. The temptation was great to keep him at arms length, so to speak.
Yet one of the reasons I so dislike the words “autism” and “spectrum” is that they place these children in a different category than the rest of humanity, a kind of verbal quarantine, where we can help them, and maybe even cure them, but not see ourselves as like them—unlike those other children who are batting cleanup, or singing in the school play, or getting honors. Storytelling has taught that humans do not actually meet in achievement but the journey to it. Children we call on the spectrum are more conspicuously about that journey than almost anyone I know.
So of course I was like Sawyer. How was I not like someone who was asking so loudly, “How do you be human?” It was the same question Max was asking as he fought against school. It is the same question we are all asking, from richest to poorest. Every story contains a mystery to which the reader is drawn. Life’s mystery draws us in as well, as we search together for the answer that is always, Love.
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I am the author of Fearless Writing: How to Create Boldly and Write with Confidence, and Write Within Yourself: An Author's Companion. Learn more here.