In about a week, my wife and I will begin our third year homeschooling Sawyer. If you had asked me five years ago if I would ever homeschool my children, my answer would have been an emphatic, NO. Though I never loved school as a kid, I viewed homeschooling as a kind of retreat. Traditional school was reality. You can hide in your homeschooling cocoon, but eventually those lovely, vulnerable, innocent children will have to be released into the wild where other people hold opinions different than yours and where they will have to compete and be judged and graded. Reality.
Sawyer did not like that version of reality. He disliked it so much that by the time he was old enough and big enough and loud enough to thoroughly disrupt a classroom we really had no other choice but to bring him home. The day we decided to pull him out, I had two thoughts: I have no idea how to do this; and, I know in about a month it will be clear that this is the best thing we could have possibly done for him.
I was right on both accounts. Part of the reason for my turn around was Sir Ken Robinson. First, I saw his TED talk, and then I twice had the opportunity to interview him for Author. I liked him right away when we met, partly because I agreed with so much of what he had to say, and also because he was so funny. Humor always reminds me that everything is going to be okay. If you listen closely to what Ken has to say you realize he is asking for a complete paradigm shift in how we view education, which is about far more than just schools. Education—learning—is about how we become who we are. Or, to put it another way, he is questioning what we have called reality. When you are getting ready to trade one reality in for another, it is good to know that everything is going to be okay.
The reality of my homeschooling experience is that Sawyer is a most difficult student. He has absolutely no interest in doing something simply because I tell him to. Oh, how easy our lessons would be if he would only obey. Instead, he insists on obeying himself. Unfortunately, when he was done shooting down all my lesson suggestions and I’d ask him, “So what do you want to do?” he’d most often answer, “I don’t know.” Ah, I thought. He’s forgotten that he does know.
This is the paradigm shift Ken is talking about. If you take a person and from a very early age tell him that all the answers to all of life’s important questions are contained in books he wouldn’t choose to read and in the minds of authority figures, you disconnect him from his true intelligence, which is his curiosity. I learn, Sawyer learns, and Sir Ken Robinson learns when we are connected to our authentic curiosity, when we ask ourselves: “Why is this so?” and, “How could I do this better?” and, “What would I like to do right now?”
This paradigm shift asks us to move our attention from the outside to the inside, exactly where so many children on the spectrum already have their attention firmly planted. The outside can only tell us where we are, it cannot possibly tell us where we want to go. To teach, then, is to trust in Sawyer what I must continue to trust in myself—a quiet but steady voice that, whenever I think to ask it, always tells me that everything is going to be okay.
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If you are raising a child on the spectrum, at some point you will probably find yourself confronted with the question: What are we? It was certainly true for me. Though I had always been a philosophical fellow, this was not a question I felt equipped or particularly interested in answering. In truth, I feared the answer. The clues were all about me, and I did not like where they were pointing. The dead alone, heaped in my imagination in their rotting finality, told a dreadful story. The disease that sometimes preceded this death was yet another grim chapter. Finally, human cruelty, examples of which were legion beyond cataloguing, spoke of a dark and twisted inner world from which none could say he was honestly exempt. What are we? There were days it seemed that any semblance of happiness I might know was dependant on not answering that horrible question.
When Sawyer came along I found myself asking that question again, but with genuine curiosity. For instance, I quickly understood that we were not our behavior. All of the challenges Sawyer faced stemmed from his unusual behavior. For a time we dealt with him as if he was his behavior. Except sometimes he exhibited the behavior we were trying to fix, and sometimes he did not. Sometimes he talked to himself when you were with him, and sometime he would talk to you. He, I finally understood, was not the behavior; he was that which chose a behavior. If it was true for him, it was true for me, and true for those people I called cruel.
It was then I began to teach myself to look through the veil of behavior. It was not so easy. Behavior, like words and money and laws, is what we share. Behavior appears to be the building blocks of realty. In truth, behavior was just a reflection of an always-shifting inner reality. If I perceive someone as an enemy, I will behave as if he is an enemy; if I perceive him as a friend, I will behave as if he is a friend. In this way, I am more something that perceives than something that behaves.
And my perception, like Sawyer’s perception, like everyone’s perception, is not in anyway bound to the world around me. I am never required to perceive anyone as an enemy, no matter his race or religion or what weapon he might carry. The perception of friend or enemy is always a choice. Sawyer himself was a friend or an enemy depending on the lens through which I viewed his behavior. My mind is like a diamond, each facet a different lens, a different story, and I am forever free to turn and turn and turn that diamond.
Which meant that what I am is free. Much of the time, of course, I do not feel so free. I can feel trapped by time and this aging body and the laws and people with whom I don’t agree. But even my entrapment is just a view from one lens, which by turning I set myself free again. Perhaps this was the answer I actually feared. Freedom is the ultimate responsibility, for with it there is no one to blame, fear, or obey. Yet I can think of no better definition of adulthood than this, and who better to help me grow up than a child?
I welcome feedback and questions. Feel free to post any comments or questions below, or contact me directly.
The only therapeutic approach we tried with Sawyer besides joining (and we tried many) in which I had any real confidence was The Anat Baniel Method. I met Anat when I interviewed her after the publication of her book Kids Beyond Limits (you can watch that two-part interview here). I liked her immediately. She was passionate and funny and spoke about how all of her work with children with challenges far more profound Sawyer’s was not about fixing them but about teaching them. When I explained Sawyer’s situation, she agreed to see him.
Things definitely began to change for Sawyer after we started visiting Anat. I do believe she helped teach him again what it felt like to be calm, something I am convinced he had forgotten. Her lessons helped awaken that part of his body where calmness is felt, a part that had gone into hibernation when perhaps all it ever felt was panic. Better to go numb. The combination of her lessons and homeschooling helped Sawyer remember who Sawyer actually was.
Yet what might have been even more important was what Anat taught me. Sawyer was very nervous during his first lesson with her. He was in a new city, a new building, meeting new people, and, as is the case with everyone, when he was nervous all his behavioral quirks became amplified. One of those quirks was to speak in an unfiltered stream-of-consciousness, his mind leaping from one taboo subject to another.
I had never seen this habit as pronounced as it was that afternoon in Anat’s room. He had hardly said hello and he was rambling about homosexuality and murder and wanting to know if she was divorced and how old she was. Normally, this is where I’d intervene, but I was with A Master, and I wanted to see how she would respond. She didn’t. Everything he said seemed to pass by her like strangers on the street. That was when it hit me: she wasn’t afraid of him.
I did not understand until that moment that I had become afraid of Sawyer. I was afraid not of what he would say or do to me, but of what his behavior meant about me—and not me his father, but me a person. What if there was some threshold we could cross from which there was no return? What if it was possible to wander so far from home that the way back not only couldn’t be found, but simply didn’t exist anymore, as if we could be left on the moon by the last rocket ever launched?
That was the life I feared most. Sometimes the world seemed filled with people stranded on the moon, but it was easy to avoid them. They were strangers, living their stranded lives in faraway places, feeling more like characters in a play to me than actual people. But no one could be closer to me than my own son, I could not avoid him, and on that day he could not have sounded more lost. Yet there was Anat, fearless and indifferent, unafraid because she perceived nothing from which she needed protection. In that moment, her fearlessness became mine as well.
My job is not to be afraid, I thought to myself. It was the perfect job for me because it is all I have ever wanted. Fearlessness is the space where love waits for us. Every question I have ever asked was answered there and nowhere else, for there actually is nowhere else. There is only love and my dreams of desolate moons. Strangely, I traveled to the moon because it was where I thought I’d find everyone else, only to discover I was alone and looking for a way home.
A friend who reads this column recently pointed out to me that I sometimes represent myself as possessing Buddha-like compassion. She expressed distress that she usually does not feel about her two sons the way I appear to feel about mine. A mother’s guilt can be profound enough every time she loses her temper or thinks, “I wish they would just act normally!” but add to this the idea that someone you know is doing it better, and so in this world of comparison your feelings of failure are now empirically justified, and you might wonder why you bother getting up in the morning.
I was both disappointed and relieved to hear this. Disappointed because I never want to misrepresent myself. I am, in fact, not Jesus. I have a temper, and no one in my life has been a greater recipient of that temper than my youngest son, Sawyer. Not my parents or my brother or sister; not my wife or my oldest son; not a coworker or neighbor or boss. Without question, I have never been angrier than I have been with Sawyer.
Sawyer’s greatest strength is that he does not want to do anything simply to please other people. I applaud this in theory, but in practice it makes the job of parenting stupendously challenging. How I want him to just stop or start doing something because I said so, because I’ve been on the planet longer than him, because I am certain that if he would just do what I told him his life and most importantly my life would go better. That would be the simplest thing. It is simple to know what I want; it is more or less impossible to know what other people want.
It has never, ever worked, this telling him what to do. It didn’t work when he was six and I was telling him to stop humming and flapping and talking to himself because normal people don’t do such things and how can I have a relationship with someone who is always humming and flapping and talking to himself; and it doesn’t work now when I tell him to stop playing video games and take a shower. After all these years I am still affronted when he tells me to leave him alone. After all these years this hot, violent thought still spikes in my mind: I cannot leave you alone because only I know what is right.
That’s usually when the yelling starts. I say horrible things to him, he says equally horrible things to me, until we exhaust ourselves of our respective horribleness and there we are. And where we are is where I actually wish to be. Which is why I was also relieved. The only thing that has ever worked with Sawyer is compassion. Not yelling or rewards, not therapies, really—only compassion. Everything else is just a tortured and complicated road back to compassion.
Compassion, however, is not a point on the map. I have only ever understood that what is mine is yours, that what I think of others I think of myself, that your good is my good and my good is your good as a feeling. Here at my desk, alone and away from the lights and circus of life, I can find and stay with that feeling more easily and so write from it. To feel it and to write it and to read it is to remember it, and to remember it is to practice it. There is no other way to unlearn the idea that someone is better than another one or that a person could possibly be born not knowing what is right for himself.
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.