I had known for years that I wanted to do public speaking, but I did not feel that I had any way to prepare for the actual experience. It is one thing to outline a talk, or pace around your office practicing that talk, but another thing altogether to stand in front of a group of strangers and deliver it. What seems like a good idea in your imagination is not always such a good idea in reality.
When the moment finally came I felt a bit as if I were being asked to walk a tightrope without a net. My opening joke, which had seemed so clever to me on the plane ride over, was met with puzzled silence. For the first ten minutes, I spoke as quickly as I could, believing that any pause would be read as symptomatic of an unprepared performer. But I soldiered on, and got a few laughs, and slowed down, and the crowd and I gradually warmed to one another.
Midway through the talk I made a point with a quick anecdote, just as I had practiced it in my office. It seemed insufficient to me, and so I decided to tell a story to further emphasize the point. I chose one of many stories I had catalogued in my memory. As I began telling this story, telling it more or less as I had told it to my friends and family, to my wife and coworkers, I realized I had been mistaken about my lack of preparation. This talk was nothing but a series of stories, and I had been telling stories since I’d learned to talk, editing them, improving them, learning from them. Stories were how I communicated with the world. I had actually been preparing for this moment my entire life.
I was reminded of a strange sound Sawyer used to make. For a time, when he was pretending, Sawyer would run back and forth, humming, thumping his chest, and, periodically, crying out, “Ack!” Whenever I heard it, I’d flinch. I hated that sound. I hated it because it wasn’t a word, and because it made no sense to me, like so much of what he did. It was an abnormal sound, a sound out of place in the world, just like him.
Then we bought some stop motion animation software that allowed one to animate figures using only a web cam. Sawyer wanted to animate his Transformer trucks. He was meticulous about it. We spent two hours bringing them to life in a battle of Good Truck versus Evil Truck. Once we had our footage, I suggested we edit it. “Can we add sound effects?” Sawyer asked. Of course we could.
We downloaded some sounds of engines roaring and grinding metal and tires screeching. Sawyer told me exactly where the sounds belonged and exactly how loud they needed to be. “This came out great,” I said. “We’re not done,” he said. “I need to add the voice.” These weren’t normal trucks, after all. These were Transformers, trucks that could walk and talk. So I grabbed a microphone, plugged it in, pressed record, and Sawyer leaned into it and belted, “Ack!”
It was the perfect sound for a talking truck colliding with another talking truck. It was as perfect as the screeching tires and grinding metal. It belonged in that movie the way my stories belonged in my lectures. Once we were finished, Sawyer hopped down from his chair, ran outside, and commenced pretending. Sitting by the computer in the kitchen I heard him cry, “Ack!” again, and I did not flinch at all.
I was standing with Sawyer at the pet store where we volunteer once a week when I noticed a father and his young son near the wire gate used to keep the cats we oversee from escaping into the store proper. It’s a freestanding gate, and the boy discovered that if he pulled on it the gate would tilt toward him. How interesting! He pulled some more and it tilted still further. The father noticed and touched the son’s arm and set the gate back to standing. The boy began pulling on it again, and the father righted the gate once more and gently nudged his son toward the fish tanks.
It had been years since I’d cared for a child that age, and I’d nearly forgotten this constant dance. All the boy knew was that pulling on the gate was interesting; it was the father’s job to know that the gate was meant to remain upright. So the father intercedes, as he will when the boy raises his voice in the library, or pulls candy from a grocery store shelf, or wanders toward a busy street. This dance has as much to do with preventing the child from the disturbing the order of things, as teaching that child that such an order actually exists.
All at once I understood the root of the most common conflict between Sawyer and me. When do I stop righting gates for him? It was simpler with my older son, who through his grades, and his manners, and his sense of humor demonstrated that he had an understanding of the Established Order and could operate comfortably within it. Sawyer, meanwhile, not only has less awareness of this order, but is frequently contemptuous of those parts of which he is aware. “Why can’t I say whatever I want to say?” he asks me. “People are too sensitive!”
There might actually be less conflict between us if I had a deep reverence for what I perceive as the Established Order – but I do not. I have lived much of my life feeling penned in by other people’s feelings over which I have from time to time accidentally trampled in my efforts to express what I believe to be The Truth. I have pulled on many a gate in my life, and not enjoyed the ruckus that followed its crashing to the ground. Yet ruckus is only noise, and when quiet returns so does the true order of things in which I can decide if I want to stand that gate or leave it on the ground.
I have reached that uncomfortable precipice where I must largely let Sawyer pull on as many gates as he wishes. While I prefer peace to discord, agreement to argument, I know too that there are plenty of gates in the world that ought to come down. Who better than these kids we have called autistic to pull on them, who have proven by their mere existence that our definition of a meaningful life remains too limited? That definition can have no limit. Such a limit pens every one of us, standing between us and our life as we are meant to lead it.
When I say that no one is broken, I mean that no one needs to be fixed. This does not mean, however, that I believe everyone should remain exactly as they are. Quite the contrary. If working with my son Sawyer has taught me nothing else it is that the question is not if things will change in my life but how they will change. Or, more specifically, how can I be a conscious participant in those inevitable changes, rather than a victim to a tide of changes that seem beyond my control?
For me, the answer was to abandon the idea that anything needs fixing. This was not so easy because I am constantly aware of conditions in my life with which I am dissatisfied or with which I disagree. If I don’t like something, I want it to change, I want it to improve, and something that has been improved has been made better has been fixed. That’s the way of the physical world.
Except it isn’t. For instance, once upon a time I very much wanted Sawyer to stop running and flapping and humming and start communicating with us when we spoke to him. His constant pretending, as we called it, was a problem that needed fixing. It made school nearly impossible and it made parenting nearly impossible. Problem. And that problem was in him; ergo, he needed to be fixed.
Our efforts to fix him, to improve him, to correct him inspired no change other than to drive him deeper into his pretend world. It was when we found joining, which was the practice of doing whatever he did with him, that we began to see the sort of changes we so desired. Yet joining was not fixing. Joining was a way to offer Sawyer another option in a language he could understand. The option we were offering was the experience of being with other people, and the language he could understand was the thing that he was already doing. Things changed, but nothing was actually fixed.
Just as there is nothing wrong with Sawyer, so too is there nothing wrong with me. But just like Sawyer, I am always seeking new experiences that better match the life I would like to live. Those new experiences become my expanded perception of what is possible, and from that expanded perception I will seek still more experiences and perceptions.
But not if I try to fix myself. Why would I want an expanded version of a broken thing? No matter how wretched I sometimes feel, no matter how compelled I feel to right this wrong that has led me to this wretched place, it is only in my appreciation of what is that I can find what I love and seek more of it. It is easy to seek more of what I love; it is impossible to eliminate what I do not. I did not fix Sawyer; I simply sought more ways to be with him rather than try to eradicate the ways I could not be with him.
I am constantly relearning this lesson. How contrary it seems that I must love the thing I wish to change. Dissatisfaction and criticism and judgment and even violence seem like perfectly reasonable responses to a wretched world. And so I try them, and so they don’t work, and so I feel so wretched that I have no choice but to seek one thing in this wretched world that pleases me, and there it is, and now I am on my way again.
Be careful what you don’t wish for. When my wife was pregnant with our first son, she began searching Seattle for a good midwife. Having thought little about this, I started from a default idea of how babies are brought into the world - namely, in a hospital surrounded by nurses, a doctor with a stethoscope around his or her neck, and as many beeping machines as possible. Given that the baby was growing in her body, I acquiesced. “But no home birth,” I said.
Three months later, after our midwife had run into some complications with the hospital where she had privileges, and having been thoroughly schooled in the natural process that is childbirth, I heard myself tell my wife, “‘Screw it. We should just do it at home.” Which we did. And all was well.
Once both our boys were old enough for school, it was to school they went. Meaning, as I told my wife early on, “I don’t care how rough it gets, no way on God’s green and spinning earth am I home schooling.” Several years later, when things got exceptionally rough for Sawyer in school, I heard myself ask him, “Do you want to just stay home from now on?” He said he did. And all was well.
Except sometimes all does not seem to be well. I was not home schooled. I went to a series of very traditional public schools where teachers asked questions and I did my best to give correct answers. The teachers always gave you the answers first, and all you had to do was remember them. Since I could usually remember them, school was all right.
Now I am the teacher. I know most of the stuff I believe Sawyer needs to learn, and so I believed I would explain it to him, he would remember it, and that would be that. Only this model did not work for Sawyer in public school, and it does not work for him at home. He does not want anyone telling him what to do, or what to think, or what to read, or what to write, or what to care about. In fact, he does not really want to do anything unless the idea for doing this thing came directly from him.
Which would be fine if my student wanted to write something, or read something, or make something, but often my student claims he does not. So what’s a teacher to do? The answer is perhaps the real reason I did not want to home school: The heart of learning and creativity and life itself is always trust. The worst thing I can do is believe Sawyer when he tells me he isn’t interested in anything. Humans are built to be interested, the same as a woman is built to bring life into the world. The greatest pain of life is always to doubt what we are, to doubt the contraction is meant to help prepare the body for delivery, to doubt that curiosity’s ceaseless creative impulse will be answered.
In this way, all my most useful teaching occurs when I am done doubting and have begun waiting and listening. It is hard for him to hear his own answers if I am jabbering in his ear about how important it is for him to be interested in life, and it is hard for me perceive his curiosity at work if I am busy trying to give it to him. So I get quiet and wait--wait through my fear that nothing will happen, wait through my fear that some people just aren’t smart enough or good enough or curious enough, wait and wait until I hear that first sound of life, a quiet question in search of answer, and I remember that all is well.
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.