The biggest obstacle I encountered with Sawyer when he was much younger was the idea that there was a problem I needed to solve. The problem, as I saw it, was that his behavior – his talking to himself, his lack of participation in school and at home, his humming and flapping – was incompatible with society as I understood it. If it was incompatible, then he would never know success on any level, because success always involves other people in some way or another, and if he never knew success then I would have failed as a father and I would never be happy.
If something exists that can come between me and happiness then it is a problem. If I cannot be happy I do not much feel like being alive. Without joy, without enthusiasm, without curiosity, without passion, without love, without excitement, this experience called life is a dull, meaningless forced march toward the grave. In this way, happiness – in all its myriad manifestations – is my reason for living, and if something arises that can blot out the sun of my joy, life on Planet Bill will cease to exist in any meaningful fashion.
Problems, you see, are threats to my very existence. Dramatic you say? Most definitely. But these thoughts occur quickly and quietly in my mind, and before I know what’s happening my son talking to himself in the grocery store stirs a fight or flight panic in my chest. Now, it’s every man for himself. Now, I am afraid, and all fear ever wants is for something to stop. Fear knows nothing about creation, only destruction. The choices I make while running for my life always lead me somewhere I do not want to be – because every choice is creative, whether I like it or not.
Love, on the other hand, is all about creating on purpose. And love is the truth of my relationship to Sawyer, to myself, and to life all around me. Love never asks, “How can I stop that?” Love only asks, “How can I have more of this?” Love knows that the more I create of one thing, the less I have of another. The useful question, then, is always how can I have more of this that I enjoy? If I observed Sawyer paying attention to me or his friends or the world around him, I would ask, “There! He just did it. How can I help to bring more of that?”
It may seem subtle, but the difference between asking, “How can I stop this?” and, “How can I have more of that?” is the difference between fear and love. It is also the difference between a world full of problems, and a world without problems; a world full of broken people, and a world without broken people. Love does not see problems. All love sees is more love.
I do not always see the world through the eyes of love. Sometimes to do so seems irresponsible. A man must be vigilant, lest the hyenas of trouble creep up on his vulnerable world. When I look for problems, I always find them. They are everywhere, hiding in every shadow. The world, I have noticed, is full of shadows. My imagination can put anything at all in a shadow, can hide any thought, can tell any story, even though the shadows I fear are nothing but the trace of the movement of light.
For most of us, our children are where we first remember what it is to love something unconditionally. And by unconditionally I mean loving someone without one single because. We do not love that person because they are beautiful or because they are kind or because they are successful or flatter us or like the same things we do. When we love someone unconditionally we love them simply because they are.
This is particularly so with newborns. The newborn offers us nothing to love but their presence. The infant cannot tell a joke or dance a jig; the newborn cannot offer us advice or listen to our problems; in fact, the newborn will not even return our smile. The newborn can breathe, eat, cry, and generate volumes of dirty diapers. And yet we love that newborn. We love that newborn for no reason whatsoever. It is a love without proof or explanation or profit. It is love for love’s sake, and in that moment we hold the newborn in our arms, we understand, if only for that moment, how this is actually enough.
In an ideal world, in a Garden of Eden world, our relationship to our children, and our friends, and strangers, and ourselves would go unchanged. In an ideal world we would all continue to love ourselves and everyone around us simply for love’s sake. But by and by we all start doing stuff. We start walking and talking and making choices and expressing preferences. All the things we do create new conditions and we are not always happy with those conditions. Sometimes we don’t like the conditions we’ve created, and often we don’t like the conditions that other people have created. What to do, what to do? Sometimes the best answer seems to be to withhold love for the offending creator, even and particularly if we ourselves are that offender. That’ll teach us.
This is why the children we say are on the autism spectrum are such great teachers. Most of these children do not, cannot, or maybe will not behave the way we believe a person should behave. They do things they shouldn’t – like hum and flap – or they don’t do things they should – like answer to their names. Fortunately, most of these children begin misbehaving, so to speak, at such a young age that it is hard for us, at least as parents, to throw them under the bus of withheld love. But what to do? By the time we are old enough to have children we have slowly and consistently trained ourselves to believe that love, for some reason, must be earned.
The answer, of course, is obvious but not so easy. It is not so easy to undo the belief that love must be earned, that it is in fact quite conditional. “I won’t be treated this way!” we say. Or, “Show me you love me!” Such thoughts feel like a declaration of independence. They are quite the opposite. To love someone, whether that someone is your child on the autism spectrum or not on the autism spectrum, whether that someone is your lover or your neighbor, whether that someone is a stranger or yourself, means to see past the meaningless pantomime of behavior.
Often, I confess, I do not see past this pantomime. I can become hypnotized into believing someone is an enemy by his behavior. But every time I have succeeded in seeing past the veil of behavior I have beheld the same presence I perceived in a newborn’s still, unsmiling, unfrowning face. That perception is my only freedom. It is the way out of Hell, an unreal world where every moment I am required to re-grow a garden that is already thriving around me.
If you had ever asked me if I cared what anyone else thought of me as a parent, I would have honestly answered no. This is because most of my time as a father has been spent in the privacy of my house, where there are no relatives or strangers to offer opinions or shoot critical looks my way. Moreover, though it may take a village to raise a child, my relationship with my sons is wholly private. In fact, though we share nearly every thought that crosses our mind about our boys, my wife’s relationship with our sons is hers, and mine is mine because I cannot be her and she cannot be me.
Which is why I would have said I do not care what anyone thinks about me as a parent. Except I am not a shut-in. I must occasionally leave my home, and I sometimes take my children with me. Out and about in the world is where I most often sympathize with the autistic impulse to retreat into myself. I read recently about a woman who had had a profound near death experience that left her able – in her words – to read everyone’s thoughts. She spent most of the rest of her earthly life holed up in her house, protected from the ceaseless stream of other people’s interior lives.
Hers, it seemed to me, was merely an extreme example of what everyone can experience in some way or another. Though I cannot read minds, I can read the shifting inner weather of any friend or stranger I meet. I do not know the true cause of these shifts, but I sense them just the same, and I have learned – slowly – that to be happy in the world I must not concern myself with anyone else’s storms or even sunshine. They are not mine; they are as private as my relationship with my sons.
This is much easier to do when I am alone. But when I was with Sawyer in particular, and when as a boy he would run and flap in stores or on the street, or begin screaming because I would not buy him this or that, I felt my focus exploding outward. All at once my mind was filled with the thoughts of other people. That I was not hearing the thoughts but actually thinking them for these friends and strangers was irrelevant. Now I was living in a storm of shame and self-consciousness.
How appealing the autistic bubble seemed just then. The power to inoculate myself forever from the influence of other people even at the expense of love or friendship seemed well worth it. It did not matter that the storm was entirely within me. It was triggered by the combination of Sawyer’s behavior and the presence of another human being whose mind, for whatever reason, I could not trust. If only, like my son frequently seemed capable, I could simply go about the world as if these people did not exist. If only I could ignore them completely I could dwell forever on a sunny island, isolated but storm-free.
I am happy to report that I have chosen not to maroon myself. I do not need to isolate myself, but only remember myself. Though it is easy for me to become lost in the dream of other people’s thoughts, to find myself even in the most crowded of public squares is to return to where I have always lived. There I am home, where all relationships are in their proper, private order. There I am home, where other people are free to visit or not, and if I listen honestly there has only ever been the sound of the sea.
Sawyer received a diagnosis of Autism largely because of one behavior, which I called pretending. In many ways, it was typical childhood behavior. While pretending, he was, like a lot of children, entering into a dream of a story he was imagining. But while imagining this story he would also run back and forth, hum loudly, thump on his chest, and go so deeply within this dream that it was difficult to get his attention even if I was standing right in front of him.
Perhaps as you read this now it is obvious enough why his parents would see this behavior as a problem. In fact, this was not initially the case. All kids pretend, after all. Max, our older son, used to run back and forth and flap his hands while he dreamed up his stories. A friend of my wife’s who taught high school noticed this behavior and said, “When they see that they’ll call him autistic, you know.” How absurd, I thought. Why label someone because he flaps his hands? Quirky as he sometimes was, Max was in fact never diagnosed with anything other than a sharp sense of humor.
So neither my wife or I saw Sawyer’s humming and thumping and deep pretending as a problem. Until, that is, his preschool teacher mentioned that she thought someone from the state ought to observe him. Somehow, over the next six months, after he was observed and tested, after we had met with experts and arranged for therapies and wondered about schools, his pretending became a problem, which meant we had to solve it. A problem, you see, is a threat to our wellbeing – and a threat to our wellbeing is intolerable, for our wellbeing, in the end, is all that actually matters.
Though Sawyer’s behavior has evolved and changed over the years – evolved, in fact, to the point where, depending on the circumstance, one might be surprised to learn he ever received any kind of diagnosis – we never did solve the problem of his pretending. We could not fix what wasn’t broken, fill what wasn’t empty, correct what wasn’t incorrect.
But we were and are still his parents, which means we have a relationship with him, which means we must choose what we will do and say in his company. We want to do and say what is best for him and us. We are not passive. But when we made choices that were in response to a threat that didn’t actually exist, we succeeded only creating a drama from which we all wished to escape.
In this way, we were all pretending. If Sawyer’s behavior was a threat, then Sawyer was an enemy. Now, in our little drama we had an antagonist called autism that dwelled within our son, and it was impossible to tell where friend and enemy diverged. When an enemy has entered my home I will make one choice; when a friend is asking for help, I will make another. These two choices, clear as they might appear, often blur as quick as a thought can cross my mind. Fortunately, the choice of what I will believe always remains mine, just as my wellbeing remains unhurt by all the imaginary arrows I have dreamt.
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.