No One Is Broken was begun from the same impulse with which most books by parents with children diagnosed on the Autism Spectrum were written – a desire to help. And like so many parents, the one I wanted to help was my child, Sawyer, who, more than anyone I knew, seemed most out of place in the world, who seemed most confused by what the world was and wasn’t asking of him. His behavior and his struggles were a magnet for my and my wife’s attention, and there were days it seemed that all our troubles would be answered if only Sawyer would start behaving normally, whatever precisely that was.
But No One Is Broken is a memoir, meaning it is largely concerned with the changes that occur within its narrator – me. The memoirist must accept that the only eyes through which he has ever understood life are his own, and that the landscape of friends and family, of lovers and antagonists, exists entirely within him. Storytellers are reporting back not what we have seen and heard, but what we feel and what we believe, because that is all we really know.
It is a good lesson for the parent of a child diagnosed on the spectrum. Parents of these children often forget about themselves. It is a habit to which parents of all kinds of children frequently succumb, but it is particularly acute when a child has what we call special needs. It is as if we live suspended in a moment of perpetual anxiety, as a parent whose child has just gone missing must live. Until that child returns safely, nothing else matters – not work, not sex, not books or sports or hobbies or passions – nothing. Until that child returns safely, life as we normally understand it has no meaning. It is a frightful way to live, and yet so many parents I know, including myself from time to time, live there anyway. We want to be happy, but what parent can be happy when his child is in peril?
Yet I can think of little that is more oppressive than having someone else believe that their happiness is dependant on my behavior. “Worry about yourself!” Sawyer frequently instructs us. There are days that seems impossible. There are days it seems that he holds the last piece in some puzzle of my wellbeing, and that I am waiting and hoping that he will at last understand what he has always possessed so that I can finally call my world complete.
Happiness is simply not happiness without freedom, and I will never be free as long as another person, even my son, appears to hold my happiness in his hands. In fact, that is the belief from which all hatred grows, which is why no one has ever driven me closer to the brink of rage than Sawyer. It is also telling that Sawyer’s greatest complaint about The World is that it is not free. One cannot be free in school, or in a job, or even sometimes in a simple conversation, what with other people cluttering it up with their own interests and desires.
Sawyer’s lifelong conversation with life appears to be about freedom, which is why I have learned more about it from him than anyone else. Every attempt to wring some behavior from him to satisfy my life has failed, and so I am left once again with myself. Here I am tempted to indulge my own autistic impulse, to retreat within myself to a silent kingdom where other people cannot wrest me from my throne of peace. I am all too familiar with this place. Yet it is actually a self-imposed prison term from which my freedom can only be gained by letting other people be.
One of the best parts of being human is that we are free. I am free to think absolutely anything I want. There is not one person on earth who can make me think anything or prevent me from thinking anything. What I think determines what I feel, and what I feel is what I live. I am free. Unfortunately, this also applies to all the other humans on earth. What we think and feel also determines what we do, and what other people do does not always meet with my approval.
I began learning some hard lessons about freewill when Sawyer’s older brother Max first arrived on the scene. My wife described five year-old Max as a C. E. O. without a company to run. He would occasionally say to me, “Dad: here’s what I need you to do,” with such authority that I had to remember who was the adult and who was the child. As a child boss, he would also throw tantrums when I was insubordinate, which, not recognizing my employee status, I frequently was. One such tantrum got so obnoxious I decided it was time to drop the hammer. “Max!” I bellowed. “Go to your room!”
Max stared back at me in confusion. “No,” he said matter-of-factly.
I darkened my voice and pointed in the direction of his bedroom door with as much menace as I could muster. “I said: Go. To. Your. Room.”
“But I don’t want to.”
There it was. Size and age, it turns out, do not determine how free one’s will is nor it’s role in the direction of our lives. It is easy to forget this when your child behaves in such a way that he eventually receives a diagnosis of autism, high-functioning or otherwise. A diagnosis suggests a medical problem, which suggests lack of choice. Yet to treat any person as if they do not have a choice, as if they do not have freewill, is to forget that they are human.
At my worst, I fluctuated between believing Sawyer had no freewill and believing he was abusing just how free his will was. Either way, he was often doing stuff I didn’t want him to do. But when he was eleven we began a practice that he would name Happy Fun Time. For an hour before bed he had to play with us. His rules, his games, but it had to involve us, not just himself. Sawyer’s social challenges had stemmed from an unwillingness that sometimes seemed like an inability to play with others. Thus Happy Fun Time.
As Happy Fun Time progressed it occurred to me that for the first time he was choosing to play with others, and that he was choosing it because he had come to understand that it was as fun as playing by himself. Why would someone choose something he considered unpleasant? In this way, freewill and pleasure and pain are inextricably linked. We are all free, and we all want to be happy.
Happy Fun Time was good for a season, and we eventually moved on to other things. But it became a model for me. The page of everyone’s life is blank, and we must all decide how we will fill it. There’s no avoiding this. The best I can do for another person, whether it is my child or a friend or a stranger, is remember that everyone has the same job – to choose what makes us happy.
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.