When my son Sawyer was three he wrote a little song whose only lyrics were: You have to get along/But you gotta have free. It struck me at the time that he had captured the entire human condition in a single couplet. We all have to get along with other people. We have to have relationships and go to school and have jobs and generally be a part of society. But we also have to be free. We have to be who we are, love what we love, think what we think, and do what we do, regardless of what those other people we’re trying to get along with might want of us.
It can often seem that these two imperatives are in conflict. Most people, in my experience, choose to get along. Most people don’t want to get booted out of the tribe and sent to hunt alone on the savanna with all the hyenas and jackals. Sawyer went the exact other route, a choice for which he eventually received the diagnosis of autism. Behaviorally, this meant he spent a great deal of time in a pretend world where he could not be easily reached by other people, including, sometimes, his parents, and almost always his teachers and classmates.
At its worst, when he was exploding at school and hardly speaking to us at home, it seemed as though he was afflicted with this thing we’ve named autism. His behavior seemed so out of place, and it caused such disruption, and was the source of so much unhappiness in so many people’s lives – including his – that it had to be a disease, for who would choose this? Who would choose to suffer?
No one, of course, but we all still do. Autism, to me, is not a disease or a condition but a strategy to deal with the universal and endless challenge of being human, of getting along and having free. That it is a strategy developed by young children still learning to play this game we’ve all invented means it can look a little weird, and frequently leads to consequences the children had never envisioned.
But in this way what could be more human than autism? Who hasn’t at some point developed a strategy to alleviate suffering that has only led to more suffering? I get nervous, so I choose to smoke; I feel lonely, so I marry the first person who’s nice to me; I want my father’s approval, so I join the family business rather than pursue a career I love. The list goes on and is as varied as people themselves.
Which is why I don’t believe in broken people and why every attempt to fix my son failed. Sometimes we offered him other strategies, but mostly we changed his environment, meaning we changed how we talked to him, and how we listened to him, and eventually pulled him out school. This seemed to be the best way to help him choose something different. By and by, his strategies changed, just as mine have changed over the years.
I understand that there are people we call autistic who do not speak at all, and who cannot seem to care for themselves. I understand that if you are the parent of such a child, it can seem that your life is beset by tragedy. There were times I felt this way myself; except the tragic view of life is useless to me. It is a belief in the end of something that is still continuing. A strategy is nothing but a choice pursued, and as long as I remain alive I must make choices. It never ends. The darkness I perceived in my blackest hour was the end, not of life, but of the viability of some old idea of it.
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.