Anat Baniel pointed out that what we call autism is not behavioral, but perceptual. I thought this was a brilliant distinction. It is the child’s behavior that draws our attention, and it is often the child’s behavior that we are trying to correct or improve or simply worry about. But behavior is always a reflection – or really a manifestation – of perception, whether the one doing the perceiving is a child on the spectrum, or you, or me, or the Queen of England.
Which is to say when my perception of the world changes, so does my behavior in that world. If I perceive a threat, I’m going to behave one way; if I do not perceive a threat, I’ll behave another. Many an argument with my wife has stemmed from me confusing an observation for a criticism. In fact all of my “worst” behavior, all my fits and unkind words, all my little addictions I’ve had to break, all my retreats into fantasy, were the product of my perceiving a threat where one did not exist. If you start swinging your sword at imaginary dragons, you’ll frighten or hurt those closest to you.
So how am I to help my son whose behavior sometimes suggests a perception of the world that is a bit askew? Sometimes talking helps. When I say talking I really mean storytelling. There are friendly stories about the world and there are unfriendly stories about the world. There are stories full of villains with no love in their hearts, and there are stories of people who become so frightened they will hurt anyone to feel safe. Sometimes he’ll listen to these stories. Often he won’t. If the story smells even a little of a life lesson he did not ask for he’ll retreat to that impregnable fortress in his mind he discovered deep in his childhood. He spent so much time in that fortress once he was called autistic.
I’d rather not be the one responsible for sending him there. I have one of these fortresses myself, and it’s tiring spending all your time holed up within its walls. Strange, because he and I retreat for more or less the same the reason – other people are exhausting. Or are they? I have found the best way for me to help Sawyer is to learn to see the very world I am describing for him in all my stories. I cannot see it behind my ramparts. All I can do there is wait for the threat to pass.
To stay in the game, however, is to give the world and all its people another chance. I don’t like to be wrong, but I have had to learn my happiness depends on recognizing just how consistently wrong I have been most of my life. I have been wrong every time I have called someone an enemy, wrong every time I thought I wasn’t good enough, wrong every time I believed someone did not love me. And I have been wrong every time I believed I needed someone to behave differently for me to be happy.
I am immeasurably grateful for how dependably wrong I have been about all these things. The world is always right if I can but perceive it so. Odd to know that and still see wrong all about me, yet I do. I see it and must decide if the dragon is real, if the castle I desire requires higher walls or just more windows.
As I mentioned in an earlier post, the only practitioners with whom my wife and I worked with any enthusiasm were Anat Baniel and her colleagues. As much as I admired her book, Kids Beyond Limits, I don’t know if we would have decided to spend the time and money to fly from Seattle to San Francisco to work with her directly if not for something she had said while I was interviewing her for Author magazine. I was writing No One Is Broken at this time, and mentioned that there is a great temptation for parents with kids on the spectrum to want to fix those children.
“There is nothing to fix,” she said, quite matter-of-factly. “You cannot fix what isn’t there. Human beings grow. Human beings evolve. You have figure out a way for (the human) to grow successfully—you can’t fix it.”
That did it for me. I didn’t always know how to best to parent Sawyer, but I did know this: I can’t fix what isn’t broken. Whatever strategies, philosophies, or approaches we tried would have to be based on the understanding that no one needs to be fixed. Anat was the first professional who was so clear that her work was about teaching and not fixing.
It is a profound distinction, especially given the types of children with whom Anat sometimes works. Sawyer’s challenges were entirely emotional. Even if you are someone who has never received a “special needs” label, it is easier to see yourself in a child whose behavior is erratic than a child who cannot walk or talk. Nearly everyone has at some point behaved erratically and understood that that erratic behavior was an expression of their erratic emotional climate, a climate that, like the weather, is defined by change. But not everyone cannot walk or talk.
Except that no one is born knowing how to walk and talk. We all had to learn to do those things. We do not call an infant who cannot talk broken. Yet when a person reaches a certain age and has yet to learn to do something – whether it is walking and talking, or moving out of their parents’ basement, or publishing a book – it is tempting to call that person broken. They would like to do these things, but they simply can’t, the same as some people can’t high jump seven feet. That’s life.
That actually isn’t life. Life does not care what we can and cannot do, it will seek its full expression through us whether or not we can talk, or live on our own, or publish a book. Life cannot fail. Sometimes Anat teaches a child to walk, but sometimes she does not. The child that does learn to walk has gained another means of expression; the child that doesn’t will learn to express himself or herself in other ways. That is life.
The only failure I have actually known in my life were my failed attempts to fix what wasn’t broken within myself. Yet the pain I sought to relieve in my fixing was only the discomfort that comes from resisting life’s full expression by deciding ahead of time how that life should be expressed. It was never my job to determine what form that expression must take, but simply to allow it through. In that allowing, I remember who I am, and life and I are in agreement once again.
If you like the ideas and perspectives expressed here, feel free to contact me about individual and group conferencing.
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.
I understand that when I say children on the autism spectrum “choose their behavior” it can sound vaguely judgmental. That is, in a courtroom a murderer’s guilt or innocence sometimes hinges on whether the accused understood right from wrong. If he did not understand the difference, then we call him insane, we acknowledge that his behavior is beyond his control, and we lock him up. If we determine that he did understand right from wrong, that he did what he did knowing it was wrong but not caring, then we call him evil, and we lock him up.
I have come to believe that all of our behavior is in a way beyond our control. Whether we are accused of murder or punishing our children, whether we are diagnosed on the spectrum or working on Wall Street, our behavior will always be an expression of our perception. It is our perception that we control. In other words, if you believe you see an enemy, you will behave as if the stranger coming toward you is an enemy. If you believe you see a friend, you will behave differently.
I learned this most acutely with Sawyer. For instance, we decided to begin homeschooling him when he was twelve. Despite all the teachers’ compassion and accommodation, school had become like a war-zone for Sawyer, a place where he always failed, and where, for a number of reasons, he could never rest. As soon as we began the homeschooling and working with Anat Baniel, it became clear that our first job was to help Sawyer remember what calm felt like.
His experience in school had left him with a kind of PTSD. He had been on the run so long he had forgotten it was normal. Or in other words, how can you choose something if you have forgotten it exists? It was our job to reintroduce calm into his life so that he could remember it and then choose it. In theory, he could have chosen it at any time, because calm always existed within him, but choosing calm in the middle of a war is far more challenging than in the peace of your living room.
I say I learned this with Sawyer, but I had recognized it years before. I was twenty-four and had just moved to Hollywood because I thought I would like to be a screenwriter. I too was on the run. Already I had been running from the threat of failure for years, and I had run so far and so blindly that I wound up in a city I disliked, pursuing a career for which I had no passion. No matter. Once I found success at something, anything, I would be able to rest.
And then one evening I found myself on the phone with Jennifer, whom I had met and fallen in love with when I was seventeen. She had moved to Seattle and we had lost track of one another, but now we were talking again. On this evening, I stood in my dim Venice apartment, talking and talking and talking. Talking to Jennifer had nothing to do with writing or movies or success. Talking to Jennifer was like a journey somewhere interesting but taken with someone else. We talked and talked and talked, and then it was time to hang up.
Once the phone was back in its cradle and I was alone with myself again, I felt something I had not felt in a very long time: I was at rest. It had been so long I had nearly forgotten what it felt like. I would spend nine months running around Hollywood, but Jennifer was always a phone call or a letter away, and I could not then forget what I had remembered. I would choose that restful place again, and again, and again until finally I followed it north out of Hollywood and to Seattle where I have been ever since.
I welcome feedback and questions. Feel free to post any comments or questions below, orcontact me directly.
Anat Baniel has been working with children with severe physical challenges for nearly 30 years. She has an impressive resume, but it was when she told me, “Autism isn’t behavioral, it’s perceptual,” that I first thought that I’d like to work with her.
The essays in this space are going to deal almost entirely with perception. That is, I will not be offering any therapeutic suggestions for anyone caring for a child on The Spectrum. There are so many things we can do to help our children, regardless of their needs. I don’t know you, or your child, but I do know that how we see the world determines what we will do to help our children and ourselves. For instance, if we believe there are broken people in the world, we might try to fix our child. If we do not believe there are broken people in the world, we will not try fix our child because you cannot fix what isn’t broken.
When we talk about autism we are always talking about behavior. Though it is discussed like a disease, there is no virus for white blood cells to attack, no tumor to be removed. There are only behaviors that are not what we would call normal. When my son Sawyer was younger he retreated into an imaginary world where he would run back and forth and hum and flap and talk to himself. He did this at home and he did it at school. That was his behavior, and we wanted it to stop.
It is tempting to view his behavior as somehow very different than, say, my behavior. It looks aberrant, therefore it must derive from something aberrant. Yet what is behavior but a reflection of perception? If I perceive a dragon standing in the middle of my street, I will behave as if there is a dragon standing in the middle of my street regardless of whether there is one or not. You could try to teach me to behave as if there isn’t a dragon, you could give me medication so I wouldn’t behave as if there is a dragon, but as long as I see a dragon I will continue to behave accordingly. I would be crazy not to.
I’ve seen a lot of dragons in my life. I’ve seen them in failure and I’ve seen them in victory. I’ve seen them in my children and in my wife and in my friends and certainly in those people I have called my enemies. When I saw dragons I behaved accordingly. I accused people of crimes I believed they had committed; I readied my sword for attacks that would never come; I complained about the world and its unfairness, for all these dragons didn’t care one wit for my wellbeing. For a time, I believed it was my job to slay all these dragons. I would slay them with success, or with a good argument, or with my virtue. Yet the dragons kept appearing.
By and by I decided that instead of trying to slay them I would learn to see through them. After all, I was only drawing my sword so that I could live in a world without dragons. What if I already did? Shouldn’t I find out if I already lived in the world I was trying so hard to create?
So what does this have to do with autism? We want our children to be normal. That is, we want them to be capable of creating a meaningful life. What if, despite their behavior, they already are normal? What if they already possess the very same tools you and I possess that guide us through our life and toward our meaning? The first thing Jen, my wife, and I did with Sawyer was stop telling him he was wrong to pretend and hum and flap. Maybe all that humming and flapping was a response to a perception of the world. Maybe he was seeing some kind of dragon. Instead of getting him to stop humming and flapping, we wanted him to start seeing a world without dragons.
And the very best way to do that was to stop seeing them ourselves. This is what we are going to do here. I think everyone in the world believes in dragons. In this way, we are all autistic. It takes practice to see a world without dragons. Consider this space part of our practice. Every time we choose to see the world and our children and ourselves as correct instead of incorrect we practice seeing a world without dragons, a world where no one is broken.
I welcome feedback and questions. Feel free to post any comments or questions below, or contact me directly.
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.