What do I mean when I say that no one is broken? What is the difference between a broken person and an unbroken person? It is hard to describe a broken person definitively because to do so is to describe an illusion and illusions can be anything. Actually, reality and illusions are similar in that reality is one thing that can take many shapes, whereas illusions are nightmares looking to take any shape but reality.
I cannot help but to speak in these terms because in parenting Sawyer I often found myself questioning what I had once thought was real. For instance, Sawyer hated to take tests. No, this isn’t even accurate. Sawyer declined to participate in any test he was given. Kids like Sawyer are always being tested, and so I had watched many times as this therapist or that expert asked him to do something or answer some question. Usually, Sawyer wouldn’t do the task or answer the question. Instead, he would flap and talk to himself, and the therapist or expert would note the results on her clipboard.
This is the sort of behavior that got him labeled autistic, but it would take me many years to understand that the behavior made its own kind of sense. Sawyer didn’t give a damn about the test. He was not interested in jumping through the hoops these kind and well-intentioned women had set up for him, but the experience of being asked to jump was uncomfortable enough that he did what he always did when he was uncomfortable – he retreated into himself where he could focus on what was interesting to him.
It may seem small, but when I finally understood what was happening it was like seeing reality turned on its head. If someone put a test before me, then by God I was going to pass it. I may not have enjoyed taking the test, I may not have cared about the test, but under no circumstance was I going to fail that test. I was like a trained dog. Show me a hoop and I would jump. Until I saw Sawyer declining to participate in the tests. Why, you don’t have to take a test if you don’t want to. How obvious. Who cares what they write on their clipboards? What would the world look like, I wondered, if I only jumped through those hoops I deemed worth my time and attention?
In this way, my view of tests was an illusion, while Sawyer’s was reality. Within my view was the quiet thought that there was something wrong with me if I did not pass every test. And if there was something wrong with me, then I could not be happy. This describes every broken person in the world: someone who lacks what they require to be happy. It does not matter whether you are broken because you are autistic, or fat, or stupid, or talentless, or addicted to heroin. There are as many reasons to be broken as there are people on the planet. All that matters is that somehow you lost at the roulette wheel of life, you came up short and lack just enough of something to be as happy as you would like to be.
Meanwhile, unhappiness is its own proof. I must be broken because I’m unhappy. If I was good enough, pretty enough, smart enough, normal enough, I wouldn’t be this miserable. Misery defines my reality. What if, however, happiness is the only reality? What if all misery is nothing but humanity believing its own nightmare? These are the questions Sawyer compelled me to ask again and again, and that I am still asking to this day. Happiness, after all, is not some fixed point on a grid. It is a place I must find within myself with every thought I think. To lose all sight of it is to be lost in a dream, and to find it is to awaken to myself.
Prior to working with Sawyer, I generally saw no difference between a person and that person’s behavior. How could there be? Words and actions, I thought, weren’t like hats you could take off, they came through you, they were your song and your animating force. Without our words and actions we would be silent and motionless—or, in other words, dead.
There was one notable exception to this, however. When I was sixteen my best friend Chris and I were having a conversation at one end of our high school’s long, dim high hallway. Classes were in session, and so the hall was otherwise empty. Chris and I rarely argued, but on this afternoon some disagreement about a movie or a song had reached a head. “You know what, Bill,” he said finally. “You’re just ordinary. You like ordinary music. You dress ordinary. There’s really nothing interesting or original about you.”
He turned and marched down that hallway as if headed off in search of more interesting friends. For all my teenage insecurities, at that moment I thought, “That is inaccurate. He is not speaking what he actually knows to be the truth. He just believed a lie he told himself that sounded good at the moment but does not actually describe me.” By and by, he and I were friends again and have been ever since. I never held that conversation against him. Why would I? What he had said was no more who he was than was I the ordinary portrait of me he had painted.
Parenting Sawyer was like returning again and again and again to that conversation with Chris. I could not be hypnotized by Sawyer’s behavior into believing that the boy who wasn’t responding to his name would never respond to his name. If I allowed my perception focus only on what he was doing at that moment, alarms would begin sounding in my head: There’s something wrong with him, there’s something wrong with him, there’s something wrong with him. I was never more useless to Sawyer than when that alarm was ringing.
If, however, I could allow myself to see through the veil of his behavior I would see within him what I knew resided within me, the same as I had also known it had resided within Chris. I would see love, whole and complete and unbreakable, seeking its correct expression. Was this not all my life had been? I have tromped about the world, saying this and doing that, and most of what I have done and said were shadows of what I truly meant to share. Yet for all my error, for all my misperception and half-truths and stumbles and accusations, love waits without judgment for my return, just and Chris eventually returned to my friendship.
Neither Sawyer nor I always know how to express love. It’s easy to make a mess of it. But love doesn’t care how badly we mangle the message, and so, ideally, neither should I. In this way, I can learn to wait as patiently for Sawyer or for Chris as love has waited for me.
Whenever I find myself in conversation with anyone about whether or not a person can be broken, it’s not long before Adolf Hitler raises his mustachioed head. After all, who but a broken person could have dreamed and made Auschwitz? It’s all very well and good to look at your child with his various challenges and say he isn’t broken, but are we really to extend this perspective to monsters like Hitler? The answer, almost without exception, is no.
It is an odd leap from children we call autistic to history’s worst villains, but it’s one I inevitably found myself making just the same. I had grown up believing in monsters. Monsters were in the movies I watched and in the books I read; they were in the newspapers, and the stories my friends and I told one another. Sometimes they were on street corners or across the playground. These monsters were the boys and men (they were always boys and men) whose actions were inexplicably cruel to me. We called their affliction evil, a thing, it would seem, that could infect a person like a permanent virus and reduce him to something less than human.
Yet how is this so different than what we have come to call autism? We call a child autistic when his actions are inexplicable to us, and often view autism as something that has happened to our children. I soon had no use for this view of my son’s behaviors. Either he had freewill or he didn’t. If he had freewill, if he had the power to choose what he would say and what he would do, then I would help him choose those behaviors that were in service to his life. Until he proved to me that he had no power to choose his behaviors, I would treat him as if he did.
It wasn’t long before my mind drifted to those monsters I had lived my life quietly fearing, monsters of the past and monsters of the present. What but their behaviors had earned them their monstrous title? And what exactly is the behavioral line one can cross where an action is no longer the manifestation of a perception – of seeing an enemy where there is actually a friend; of seeing a threat where there is actually safety – and is instead the command of a force greater than us, where our bodies and minds become but puppets to some invisible and wicked puppeteer?
I found it impossible to hold in my mind these two opposing views humanity, to look at my boy or myself and say, “We are innocent. We are not broken because we are not our behaviors,” and then look at the men I called monsters and say they were guilty. If Hitler could be guilty then I could be guilty and Sawyer could be guilty. And so did I forgive Hitler in that moment? Not really. He was still mostly a caricature of evil in my imagination, as were many of the serial killers and dictators living and dead.
I was not, however, going to hold my life hostage to these men’s gaudy atrocities. There are people I love, whom I trust and adore, who have, while caught in the momentum of anger and frustration and fear, spoken unkindly to me. In those moments, as I learned to do with Sawyer and those behaviors we called autistic, I have looked past my friends’ words to who they truly are. I cannot require myself to see everyone in the world with the same intimate clarity with which I see the people I know and love. I do not have God’s eyes. But I can hold within my heart the knowledge that no one is broken, and have faith in that which is beyond my current perception. Most of the world is beyond my current perception, and yet I can love it just the same if I can only trust that a stranger desires love the same as I desire it now.
When Sawyer was about seven he found me watching an episode of The Simpsons in our kitchen. In this episode, instead of the usual intro, we saw an animated evolution of man from monkey, to Neanderthal, to Homer (ha, ha), and then back to monkey. When Sawyer didn’t get the joke, I told him it was a play on evolution, and when he asked me what evolution was, I told him about how we were once all little amoeba swimming in pools, but one thing led to another and now here we are watching reruns of The Simpsons on computers.
“Oh,” he said, and thought a minute. “And what will humans evolve into?”
In all the discussion and debate on evolution I’d heard and read, never once had I heard or read this question, and my first thought that evening was, “That would be you, my boy.”
It would be tempting to view the children we call autistic as anti-evolutionary, and for this I lay the blame gently at the feet of science itself, which, upon observing this impulse within all of life to create more and more and more of itself, naturally asked, “Why?” The answer, as I have often heard it, is “We evolve to survive – or, to be more accurate, to avoid death for as long as possible.” In this way, evolution is nature’s way of extending a game we are all born to lose.
This is the kind of accidental nihilism that comes from viewing life as entirely mechanical, a world where everything can be broken and where death is just the moment where we all break beyond repair. Which brings me back to those kids on the spectrum. If we are here on earth to not-die for as long as possible, then the kids we call autistic are probably screwed. They seem to lack all survival skills, and this sometimes terrifies us. These children we love are the sickly zebras the lions are laying in wait for.
What if, however, our scientific minds viewed this evolution thing through the wrong end of the telescope, so to speak? What if evolution is not creation’s movement away from death but toward life? Will you ever feel more alive, more on purpose, more what you actually are than when you stand in love, when you are doing what you love, listening to what you love, talking to the ones you love? Is it really possible to have too much love in your life? Are we not forever seeking more and more and more of it, the same as creation is seeking more and more and more of itself?
And is love any purer or any cleaner than when it is unconditional? In fact, the moment we put conditions on our love it ceases to be love at all. The moment we say, “I will love myself when I am thin enough, or successful enough, or married enough,” we have made love a test we must continually pass. Who better to teach us to love unconditionally than these children, whom we love from the moment we hold them swaddled and fresh to this world in our arms? Who better than children who cannot pass any tests?
Sometimes raising children who cannot simply toddle happily off to school, who must be driven to therapies, for whom we must spend hours researching on the internet, who keep us up at night, who demand a level of care we had come to associate with infancy – sometimes these kids seem to be depriving us of our lives. I have certainly felt so. Yet all of those things I must do for Sawyer are merely conditions under which I have declared my love of life is not possible. As I withdraw those conditions, usually one-by-one, life reveals itself, the same as Sawyer has bit-by-bit revealed himself to me.
I understand that when I say children on the autism spectrum “choose their behavior” it can sound vaguely judgmental. That is, in a courtroom a murderer’s guilt or innocence sometimes hinges on whether the accused understood right from wrong. If he did not understand the difference, then we call him insane, we acknowledge that his behavior is beyond his control, and we lock him up. If we determine that he did understand right from wrong, that he did what he did knowing it was wrong but not caring, then we call him evil, and we lock him up.
I have come to believe that all of our behavior is in a way beyond our control. Whether we are accused of murder or punishing our children, whether we are diagnosed on the spectrum or working on Wall Street, our behavior will always be an expression of our perception. It is our perception that we control. In other words, if you believe you see an enemy, you will behave as if the stranger coming toward you is an enemy. If you believe you see a friend, you will behave differently.
I learned this most acutely with Sawyer. For instance, we decided to begin homeschooling him when he was twelve. Despite all the teachers’ compassion and accommodation, school had become like a war-zone for Sawyer, a place where he always failed, and where, for a number of reasons, he could never rest. As soon as we began the homeschooling and working with Anat Baniel, it became clear that our first job was to help Sawyer remember what calm felt like.
His experience in school had left him with a kind of PTSD. He had been on the run so long he had forgotten it was normal. Or in other words, how can you choose something if you have forgotten it exists? It was our job to reintroduce calm into his life so that he could remember it and then choose it. In theory, he could have chosen it at any time, because calm always existed within him, but choosing calm in the middle of a war is far more challenging than in the peace of your living room.
I say I learned this with Sawyer, but I had recognized it years before. I was twenty-four and had just moved to Hollywood because I thought I would like to be a screenwriter. I too was on the run. Already I had been running from the threat of failure for years, and I had run so far and so blindly that I wound up in a city I disliked, pursuing a career for which I had no passion. No matter. Once I found success at something, anything, I would be able to rest.
And then one evening I found myself on the phone with Jennifer, whom I had met and fallen in love with when I was seventeen. She had moved to Seattle and we had lost track of one another, but now we were talking again. On this evening, I stood in my dim Venice apartment, talking and talking and talking. Talking to Jennifer had nothing to do with writing or movies or success. Talking to Jennifer was like a journey somewhere interesting but taken with someone else. We talked and talked and talked, and then it was time to hang up.
Once the phone was back in its cradle and I was alone with myself again, I felt something I had not felt in a very long time: I was at rest. It had been so long I had nearly forgotten what it felt like. I would spend nine months running around Hollywood, but Jennifer was always a phone call or a letter away, and I could not then forget what I had remembered. I would choose that restful place again, and again, and again until finally I followed it north out of Hollywood and to Seattle where I have been ever since.
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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.