I was about three drafts into No One Is Broken and having one of those conversations with my then-agent about why the book was and wasn’t working. Stories, even true stories, are curious things that way. It’s very easy to tell when they aren’t working, and you can usually tell when they are, but why a story works and how to fix one that isn’t remains largely mysterious, even to the most experienced writers and editors.
So there we were talking about this story as if it were a bike missing a wheel – a wheel we weren’t sure was even needed because maybe the story was actually a unicycle – when I mentioned that No One Is Broken is really a meditation on happiness. There was a relationship-ending pause on the other end of the phone, a pause that said, “I thought it was a book about Autism.” I recognized this silence and quickly moved on, understanding that while it was true the book was ultimately about happiness, I didn’t know why, in much the same way I did not yet know how to tell my own story.
My attempts to fix that story were as futile as my attempts to fix Sawyer. In the case of the story, there was nothing to fix, there was only something to find. When you find a story it is very much like uncovering something that has been misplaced. What the story was meant to be is all at once as obvious as realizing your missing glasses are on your head. The only problem with the story is the author’s inability to perceive it.
Which is why No One Is Broken is really a story about happiness and not what we call autism. A broken person is someone for whom true happiness is impossible. If only I weren’t autistic, or fat, or stupid, or short, or sick, or poor I could be happy. So goes the story of our brokenness, a story that says we must accept a limited experience of happiness due to conditions beyond our control. Optimists that we ultimately are, we are unwilling to accept this limited happiness, and so set about trying to fix ourselves, with much the same results of a writer trying to fix his story when he should be trying to find it.
And how does a writer find his story? By freeing it from all the thoughts and characters and subplots that don’t belong to it in the same way Michelangelo said he freed David from the marble. So too with happiness. I cannot make happiness; I can only perceive it, both in myself and in other people. To perceive Sawyer’s wholeness, which was his capacity for happiness, I had to look beyond certain behaviors that were nothing more than an expression of his own confusion and fear, behaviors that were his own quirky attempts to find his own happiness.
Perceived in this way, there was nothing to fix, there was only the question of what is real and what is not. Unhappiness is not reality in the way happiness is reality. Unhappiness is only an expression of our desire to return to what we are. Stories are filled with characters lamenting their conditions. Mired in jungles and swamps through which their author led them, the characters cry out. They may no know why they’re here, or how to get out, but they do know this: these jungles and swamps are not home.
And they are right.
Life became very difficult for Sawyer during his sixth grade year. All our attempts to lure him out of his imaginary world had begun to bear fruit. He realized he liked other kids and he wanted to join the game of life. Unfortunately, he did not know most of the rules of that game, and it seemed to move very fast, and he did not know how to pass the ball, and so mostly his attempts to join the game only disrupted the game. “I’m a loser,” he told me in the middle of that year.
“No one’s a loser,” I said.
“I am,” he replied.
By the end of the year he became unhappier and more disruptive. Jen and I began to worry as only parents can. We needed to do something. He was twelve years old, and it wasn’t long before what might get you a timeout in middle school could get you jail time in high school. But Sawyer was not some puppet on our parental strings. We felt at once wholly responsible for his wellbeing while simultaneously aware that his wellbeing was ultimately in his own hands.
That was when we found Happy Fun Time. This was Sawyer’s name for the thirty minutes we spent playing together before bed every night. The rules of Happy Fun Time were this: we had to have fun playing a game he wanted to play. Sometimes the game was thumb-wrestling, sometimes it was Sorry, and sometimes it was dueling with Nerf swords. It didn’t matter. The goal was for him to have fun with other people.
His mood at home that summer lightened dramatically, a change that was clearly traceable to Happy Fun Time. We’d done something. Yet the more we did Happy Fun Time, the more I came to understand that what Jen and I were really doing was trusting in the system. The system is that human beings A: have a freewill, and B: always want to be happy. Humans always use that freewill to choose happiness. Sometimes that means choosing to be unhappy again and again and again just to understand the difference – but no matter. At the end of their journey, no matter how rough and unruly the ocean, all ships go home.
Happy Fun Time helped remind Sawyer of the pleasure of being with other people so that he might choose it himself. Yet in the end we had to trust that he would choose it not because it was the right thing to do or the appropriate thing to do but because it was the pleasurable, satisfying, fun thing to do. That’s the system. Even as his parent, I have no control over the system, anymore than a gardener has control over a flower. The best I can do is create an environment where that flower can grow as it is meant to grow.
Hardly a day goes by where I do not say to myself, “Trust the system, Bill.” At such times it is not Sawyer I am remembering to trust, or me, or my wife, but life itself. It is easy for me to mistake life for an ocean hungry to drown sailors like me. What a cruel and meaningless journey. How hard I grip the wheel and strain against the tide. Yet to trust in the system is to release the wheel at last, and to watch the ship right itself and turn toward home.
When Sawyer was in elementary school, his teachers often said that he couldn’t focus. While all the other children in the class were giving their attention to their work, his invariably drifted into his imagination. This was true even after he agreed to do the work. The problem was so consistent that it appeared nearly mechanical in nature, as if there were some powerful force within his mind toward which his attention was drawn as surely and as predictably as a nail is drawn to a magnet.
I did not like this story of how Sawyer couldn’t focus, but it was hard to disagree with. It is difficult to have a relationship with someone whose attention seems pinned to the walls of his imagination, whether that relationship is between two friends, a teacher and a student, or a father and a son. My attempts to grow my relationship with Sawyer were nearly always thwarted by this magnetic pull that was stronger than my words, and stronger also than my punishments or rewards. It was so tempting in my most frustrated hours to simply lay the blame on this boogieman called Autism. There is no relationship because he can’t have a relationship because he can’t focus. No one is responsible for this non-relationship; only Autism, which cannot be seen or touched or negotiated with, is responsible.
Then one Christmas, when he was nearly eight, Sawyer requested a LEGO Spider Space Station as his Big Present. The box was the size of a flat-screen TV and warned that this toy was for ages 12-15. No matter, Christmas morning he took his Spider Space Station to his room and set to work. The instruction manual was as thick as a magazine. Sawyer sat on the floor with the instructions, his box of pieces, and slowly built the space station. He did this for three straight hours. He never flapped or hummed or pretended. He was focused. He was as focused as person could be.
It was then I saw the difference between can’t and isn’t. It was never true that Sawyer couldn’t focus; it was only true that he wasn’t focused. The boy who can’t focus is broken; the boy who isn’t focusing simply hasn’t learned how to focus. Moreover, even when we said he wasn’t focused, he actually was focused, only on something other than what we wanted him to focus on. Apparently, he had found something in his imagination more interesting to him than what our relationship was offering at that moment.
This is not an easy pill to swallow for anyone – friend, teacher, or father. His inattention seemed to suggest that I wasn’t interesting. As a writer, as a storyteller, as an entertainer, this is a kind of death. A writer’s entire value to his readers is based on how interesting he is. Yet as a writer, I had also learned that I could only lay my attention on a story long enough to tell it interestingly if I was interested in it. Was I interested in Sawyer? Was I interested enough in him to give him my full attention so that I could stop saying I couldn’t have a relationship and start learning how to have a relationship with him?
The answer is usually yes. But not always. There are still days where in a kind of parental exhaustion I think, “It is time for him to simply be interested in me!” This thought is nothing but Adult Onset Autism, the impulse to retreat from the world because I believe I can’t relate to it. Sawyer is always interesting when I focus on the window of interest we share, a window that might appear narrow at first, but which grows in breadth and possibility just as his Spider Space Station grew that Christmas.
I like to watch football, which means I also like to listen to ex-professional football players talk about football. A few years ago I was listening to Michael Irving talk about Tom Brady. Irving had been a gregarious, limelight-loving, boisterously unapologetic superstar wide receiver for the Dallas Cowboys. The game being discussed was between the New England Patriots and the Denver Broncos. Tim Tebow was at that time the Broncos quarterback and he was on a particularly spectacular run. He was getting far more attention than his counterpart Brady, the Patriots’ Hall-of-Fame-bound quarterback.
The game, however, was lopsided. Brady played brilliantly, Tebow was off, and the Patriots won in a route. Irving had this to say about Brady’s performance: “Tom Brady don’t share the spotlight with nobody. He don’t share the spotlight with nobody!”
“Oh,” I thought. “Irving is talking about himself.”
It occurred to me then that every ex-professional football player is talking about himself when he discusses the strengths and weaknesses of current professional football players. Soon, I noticed that whenever I was talking about someone else, I was actually talking about myself. It was true when I talked about celebrities, it was true when I talked about friends and relatives, and it was certainly true when I talked about Sawyer.
I could write an entire book on this subject, that the world is nothing but a mirror reflecting my thinking back at me, but it seems particularly relevant for parents raising children on what we call the autism spectrum. With these children the focus is always on how we the parents hope these children will change. This is true of all parents and their children, but it is more dramatically so with the spectrum children. I didn’t just want Sawyer to get better grades in school, I wanted him to simply play with another child; I didn’t want him to learn to say “Please” and “Thank You,” I wanted him to simply respond when I said his name.
Sawyer has changed a lot over the years, and I suppose Jen, my wife, and I had something to do with that. But in truth, I have no idea how to change someone else. The only thing I know how to change is my own behavior and the focus of my own attention. The best I can do is to contribute to an environment that encourages the sorts of changes I deem positive. And so if I wanted Sawyer to learn to listen, then I had to learn to listen better; and if I wanted Sawyer to stop pretending so much, I had to stop pretending so much.
On and on. In fact, I came to understand that the only habits I believed he needed to change were in some way exaggerations of habits I very much wanted to change in myself. Otherwise, he was just fine the way he was. Moreover, once I made the change I had been hoping for in myself to my own satisfaction, my concern for Sawyer subsided. I knew now the change I hoped for within him was possible, for I had lived it myself. Broken things, you see, can’t change except to rust and rot. Humans, on the other hand, can only change, can only evolve toward what they come to believe is possible.
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.