If you’re raising a kid on the spectrum, it is probably a good idea to take a moment tomorrow (Thanksgiving, 2014) and acknowledge how thankful you are for them, quirks and challenges and all. In fact, you should probably be thankful specifically for those quirks and challenges, though I am sure there have been many, many days and nights when you, like I, have thought, “My life would be immeasurably simpler if only he would just do what everyone else does.”
But when I think of Sawyer in this way I’m reminded of the hundreds of rejections letters I received during the twenty or so years I spent writing novels I could not sell. At the time, I was not thankful for any of those rejection letters. In fact, I hated them. Because of them, my life was incomplete; because of them, I had failed at the one thing at which I most wanted to succeed.
Except were it not for those letters, I do not know that I would be doing what I am doing now. I love what I am doing now, which is writing and talking about doing what you love instead of doing what you don’t love or even what you sort of love. Spending twenty years writing novels you don’t fully love is a great way to learn why it is so important to write what you do love to write. Those rejection letters spoke to me in the only language I could hear, and gradually guided me to where I am now.
The same is true of Sawyer. What has made Sawyer’s life so challenging is his intense desire not to do something simply because someone else wants him to. I share this desire, but it is more acute within him than it has ever been within me. It would be a lot easier, I suppose, if Sawyer would just treat his mother and me like the captains of this domestic ship, but he has been mutinous from day one by asking over and over, in both word and action, “What’s in it for me?”
If this sounds selfish, it is often is, and I have hated that selfishness with the same ferocity with which I hated the rejection letters. But that selfishness is only an expression of his and my and everyone’s confusion. It has always been easy for me to step over some invisible line and begin to appease or imitate or conform, slipping into a search for acceptance rather than connection. Once you I accepted myself, connection occurs immediately. The moment I reject myself, all my connection to life is lost.
So yes, I am thankful for Sawyer and his stubborn desire to know what’s in it for him. If you want to learn something, go teach to it to someone else. The line between rejection and acceptance is thin, but the results are as defined as life and death. As Eckhart Tolle pointed out, death is the opposite of birth, not life. Life has no opposite. To be thankful for rejection letters and the spectrum and all things unwanted is to acknowledge life as it is instead of what I believe it should be. In that moment, the battle with life is over, and like every exhausted soldier I am grateful that I can return home to a warm meal with those I love.
As someone who now does a lot of public speaking, and who was a part of his own theater troupe twenty-five years ago, and who writes and shares his work every day, I am generally, shall we say, comfortable receiving other people’s attention. I understand that this puts me in a minority – public speaking seeming more frightening to most people than death. Not for me. At times I am more comfortable behind a microphone in front of a group of strangers than pacing my house alone.
Such is my orientation, though it is only in the second half of my life that I have fully understood it and sought to employ it regularly. Prior to that, I often felt ignored, perhaps never more so with Sawyer. As I’ve mentioned in this space before, Sawyer was said to have a “neurological speech disorder of unknown origin,” which was a complicated way of saying he didn’t like to listen to other people.
Sawyer was fantastic at not listening. He was a master. He could go to a place within himself that another person’s voice simply could not penetrate unless that voice was offering him cookies or ice cream. This made the business of parenting him very challenging. Getting him to school, getting him to brush his teeth, dressing him, feeding him—all these fundamental childrearing activities were made doubly hard because I was never sure when and if he heard anything I said to him.
Yet what was more difficult, and what I rarely acknowledged to myself, had nothing to do with parenting. Before I am a father and he is my son, before I am trying to feed him and clothe him and teach him, I am simply a person and he is simply a person. And as a person, I don’t like to be ignored. When I am ignored, for whatever reason, I am tempted to feel as though I don’t matter, that I am invisible, that what I have to share with the world is not wanted.
For years I lost my temper with him. I was trying to help him, you see, and he wouldn’t let me; I was trying to teach him and guide him and be is father and he just wouldn’t let me. I lost my temper because this was so frustrating. I don’t think, however, that my temper had anything to do with being his father. I cannot remember precisely when I found his listening habits less frustrating, though it seemed to start about the same I time I began writing and speaking to people about subjects I had long ignored.
It turns out, the more I paid attention to myself, the more I paid attention to how I actually wanted to live my life, the easier it was to attract Sawyer’s attention. In fact, the more I paid attention to myself, the easier it was for me to pay attention to everyone. This is the question the children we call autistic seem to be asking over and over again: How do I listen to myself and other people at the same time? Are not these two imperatives in competition with one another?
Not only are they not in competition, they are actually one and the same. I have come to understand that everything I hear is an echo of what I am thinking. The moment I pay attention to that world within me, that space from which we want the children we call autistic to emerge, the world outside of me makes sense. Now that I have sought agreement with myself, I find I am in agreement with the world, and we can begin to talk to one another.
When we were still young parents, my wife would take our oldest son, Max, to a park near our apartment. One afternoon, Jen arrived at the park to find an older woman overseeing two young girls playing on the swings and slides. Jen set Max free, and settled in on a bench near the woman.
“This one is yours, yes?” the woman asked in a Russian accent.
“He’s my first, yes.”
“I am nanny for these two.”
The Russian nanny shrugged. “I have been nanny many years, with many children. These are good girls, but . . .” She pointed to the one sister at the top of the slide. “This one here is smart. Very quick. But this one . . .” She pointed to the other sister playing in the sand near Max. “She is not smart at all. You talk and she doesn’t listen. She just doesn’t listen.” She shook her head with Old World authority. “She is the stupid one.”
Jen tried gently negotiating with the Russian nanny, offering that maybe the girl was a bit of daydreamer and that sometimes daydreamers got lost in their own imaginations, but the nanny would have none of it. She’d been a nanny all her life, in two countries. She knew children. She had no illusions. There were smart children and dumb children, and this one, the one who simply wouldn’t listen to her, was a dumb one.
A few weeks later Jen was back at the park and there were the two sisters, but instead of the nanny a weary and worried looking woman who could only be the girls’ mother. Jen asked about the nanny. “We had to let her go,” explained the mother.
“I see,” said Jen, trying not to sound too relieved. No mother wants to be told she had hired the wrong woman to take care of her children.
“We’d been noticing something odd with Ally, our youngest,” the mother continued. “She just wasn’t responding in the way her older sister would. It just wasn’t right. So we finally took her in and had her tested and . . .” The mother shook her head. “She’s deaf.”
Jen spent the afternoon consoling this woman who had that raw quality parents acquire for a time after they learn this sort of news. This was still a year before Sawyer was born, and several years before we would begin receiving news like this mother had received. I would think of that Russian nanny from time to time once our world was overrun with doctors and therapists and tests. Her mistake, it occurred to me, was not calling the girl stupid, but simply believing stupid people existed. It was an easy mistake to make, one I made over and over again. How easy it was to believe it was the world that needed fixing, not simply the stories I was telling about it.
When I began writing No One Is Broken I assumed I would be writing about how my wife and I helped our son Sawyer, but I ended up writing a book about how helping Sawyer helped me. Specifically, how helping him taught me what success is and what it isn’t and how not to let my life become undone in the pursuit of it.
This turn surprised me at fist, and I made what is a common mistake with many writers: I resisted where the story wanted to go. My success or lack thereof seemed like such a small story, whereas whether a person could or could not be broken was a very big story. But a good story is stubborn in its direction, and by and by I yielded to the momentum. Once I did, it made perfect sense for this story to be about success, if for no other reason than most of the kids diagnosed on the spectrum are boys.
Men’s relationship to success is largely suicidal, by which I mean we will surrender our value and our happiness to something that appears to exist outside of ourselves, some phantom finish line we must cross to know that our life was worth living. Without success, our life becomes a kind of failed experiment, an idea that in the end proved not to be worth pursuing. It is a terrifying view of the world, yet it is so pervasive that men simply do not talk about it. Talking about whether or not we want to succeed would be like talking about whether or not we want to eat.
Boys on the spectrum, meanwhile, exhibit behaviors not commonly associated with success, either romantic or professional. Success, after all, appears to have everything to do with the external world, with school, and jobs, and other people, all those things not within us where our imagination and thoughts and emotions dwell. The child on the spectrum seems overly focused within himself. How can anyone have success, and therefore know actual adult, worldly happiness, unless he learns how that world outside of his imagination works?
It was a good question, and as I watched Sawyer fail or maybe simply choose not to jump through any of the hoops children his age are expected to jump through, it began to occur to me that children we say are on the spectrum are actually focusing their attention exactly where success exists. There is no success outside of our imaginations—not in anyway. Poll a thousand people and you will be given a thousand definitions of success. We invent the finish line, and then celebrate or mourn when we do or do not cross it.
What we have come to call success is nothing but a misnomer for happiness. No one actually wants to succeed, they only want to be happy, just as no one actually wants to be beautiful or married or rich or strong or thin or have a full head of hair. We only want to be happy, to know love from the inside out. There is absolutely nothing else to want. To find what you love and share it is success, but you cannot find what you do not see. To wander the world searching for success, writing book after book, going on date after date, working job after job, is like shopping for a piano that will write its own sonata.
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.