I have two sons. My oldest son, Max, decided around age eleven that school was a just a game he needed to play if he was going to get where he wanted to go. From that time forward it was relatively easy for him. He graduated high school near the top of his class, he was elected Junior Class President, he was a member of the debate team, he was offered a scholarship to American University, and was one of two seniors selected to speak at his commencement. He also had a girlfriend, for the record.
My younger son, Sawyer, decided around age twelve that he wanted nothing more to do with school, and he has been homeschooled ever since. He has never been a member of any team, he has never won an award, nor does he have a circle of friends. He was diagnosed on the autism spectrum when he was seven.
Do not be fooled by this list, however. Max and Sawyer are different in the way all brothers are different and are similar in the way all brothers are similar, just as two branches grow in different directions from the same tree. Lists of accolades and diagnoses form extremely misleading portraits. Missing are the thousands of tiny choices that make up a day, choices that ultimately determine the course of a life.
As their father, my concern is not that list of accolades and diagnoses, but those tiny choices that make up a day. And not their choices – but mine. No matter how different their choices and experiences, my job remains exactly the same: To ask myself, whenever my boys and I are relating, “What is the very best thing I can do or say at this moment?” That’s it. My job is not to fix them or plan their lives or even teach them right from wrong.
It is a very simple job that nonetheless requires my full attention because no two moments are ever the same. Sometimes the best thing to do is to tell a story, and sometimes the best thing to do is to listen to a story; sometimes the best thing to do is give a little advice, and sometimes the best thing to do is take a little advice. Of course, sometimes I do not give a moment my full attention, which is always when I find other people most annoying. When I don’t give a moment my full attention, instead of asking, “What’s the best thing I can do or say?” I usually ask myself, “What the hell is wrong with that person?”
The answer to that question is always, “Nothing.” Yes, sometimes that other person is upset, or scared, or angry, or tired, or confused – but nothing is ever wrong with them. They are never broken. If I ask honestly ask myself, “What’s the best thing I can do?” I always get an answer. If I ask, “What is wrong with that person?” any answer I hear is merely an invention of my own fear that life itself has somehow gone off-kilter and I must now correct it.
That is not a job I want. I’ve attempted it often, with very poor results. In fact, I could no more do that job than teach a tree to grow. Whether I am a parent or child, the best I can ever do is align myself with where I authentically want to go. This choice requires my full attention, but the benefits of giving that attention are always immediate. No sooner do I do so than I am back with myself, and my boys, and all those other people of which a life is made.
I tell my writing students and clients that if I could give only one piece of writing advice it would be to pay attention to how you feel.
Because every story every writer wants to tell is as different as the life each writer is leading, there is no way to know if you are telling your right story in the right way, other than how you feel as you are telling it. I always feel better when I tell a story in the way I most want to tell it, and I always feel worse when I try to make myself tell a story I don’t want to tell in a way I don’t want to tell it. It is as dependable as the sun rising in the east and setting in the west.
I did not know where the sun rose or set for many years. Growing up I didn’t understand about north, south, east, and west as it related to my everyday life. I knew street names and how to get to my school and my friends’ houses, and I knew the sun appeared in my window every morning and retired every night. I never noticed how the shadows moved through the course of the day. I did not look to the sun for any guidance beyond the light it provided.
It was about the time I had children that I began paying attention to the sun’s dependable station in the sky. I suppose I was looking for guidance anywhere I could find it. Books and articles and websites with instructions on How to Be a Good Parent are useful, but I had two sons and each one needed something different of me. What’s more, what was asked of me changed as they changed. Each one would require his own instruction manual that would have to be rewritten and rewritten and rewritten.
I wanted to be a good parent, and I wanted my boys to thrive, but in reality I still wanted the exact same thing at 42 that I did at 12: to be happy. It turns out this is something my boys and I had in common. I would frequently forget this as I went about the business of trying to teach them the many rules humans made up before they were born. By the time I was done explaining about red lights and green lights, and inside voices and outside voices, and north and south and east and west, I could believe that but for the light of my knowledge they would stumble about in darkness all their lives.
It was particularly challenging with my younger son whose attention was so often directed inward that I wasn’t sure if he even noticed the sun in the sky, let alone an oncoming car. He would eventually receive a diagnosis for this habit, which only compounded my belief that I was somehow responsible for every step that he took. This belief left me exhausted and ripe for failure. I could no more tell him how to be happy than I could tell one of my students which words went where in their stories.
I could, however, remind him that he possessed the exact same unerring guidance system that I did. To do so I had to first remind myself every single day that he has this guidance system, and that, just like me, when he ignores it he feels crappy, and when he obeys it he feels good. It never fails. It’s always a relief when I remember this. At that moment, fatherhood and writing and life itself become far simpler. Gone is the need for the perfect map or guidebook; now I need only look toward the light to tell me where I am.
Shortly after my second son, Sawyer, was born, my wife, Jen, began experiencing some discomfort in her abdomen. Several trips to the gynecologist yielded no improvement, so an ultrasound was scheduled. On the day, I sat in the waiting room with my infant son while she was examined. As a young father, this was a familiar experience. Between my wife's pregnancies and then my two sons checkups and bruises, there were many trips to doctors’ offices where I found myself waiting and waiting, until I learned that everyone was fine and everything was going to be okay.
Eventually Jen emerged from the examination room and sat beside me with a heavy sigh. “They found a growth on one of my ovaries.”
She nodded. A growth. In my imagination, I quickly diagnosed this growth. It was cancer. And she was going to die. And I was going to raise my sons alone. I began picturing my life as a single father. It wasn’t going to be easy, but I would adjust, and everything would be okay.
I had just finished this trip to the future when her doctor appeared and began explaining what an ovarian cyst was. Apparently an ovarian cyst isn’t cancer, but it can cause discomfort in the abdomen. I was still a little disoriented by it all, and once we’d thanked her doctor, I turned to Jen for clarification. “So you’re not going die?”
She laughed. “Not yet.”
Seven years later my son Sawyer would be diagnosed with autism. There were times during that period where I felt as if I spent half my waking life in waiting rooms. It was appropriate, I suppose, because the parent of a child with this diagnosis can live in a suspended state of unending waiting – not for news from this or that doctor, therapist, or teacher, but simply waiting for The Future, where autism’s true threat always lies.
Because even though school was difficult for my son, and even though getting his attention at home could be difficult, and even though he wasn’t making friends the way other kids were making friends – ultimately, in the present moment, everything was okay. He wasn’t unhappy, at least not any more than I was sometimes unhappy or his brother and his mother were sometimes unhappy. In fact, he was often quite happy; he just found most of that happiness in the realm of his constantly active imagination.
It was the very realm in which as a writer I’d found such pleasure, but as a father I often found much misery. Sometimes I would ask my imagination what The Future would look like for Sawyer, and because my imagination could not easily draw a line between what I was seeing in the present and what I wanted to see in the future, it showed me a dystopian world where for some reason Sawyer had learned absolutely nothing about how to get along with other adults. If I looked too long at that world, I would begin panicking in the world where I actually lived, as if that future had already arrived. I needed to do something immediately because everything wasn’t okay.
The best thing I can do at these moments is always nothing. Every time I try to predict the future I am wrong, and I am never more wrong than when I predict tragedy, a dismal future where everything is not and never will be okay. The fear I have felt for my son is always quite real, but the cause of that fear is always imagined. Not sometimes – always. Just as when I take the time to look around at when and where I’m actually living, I eventually notice that everything and everyone are always okay.
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.
When I was thirty-five I sent a copy of my third novel to my father. He emailed two days later saying he was eager to talk to me about it. I called him immediately. “Well, I think it’s the best thing you’ve ever written,” he said. “And I think you’ll never be a success as a literary writer.”
Stunned, I staggered my way through the rest of the conversation as if I had just found out I had cancer. I hung up and considered never talking to him again. I called right back instead, and told him – as a father of two sons myself now – that you never tell anyone, let alone your son, that he won’t be a success at something. You just don’t do it. We talked some about looking for other people’s approval, and I ended the conversation deciding I wasn’t done with him after all. But I was left with a question I had asked of him many times in my life: How could he not know never to say that?
It was ten years later and we were on the phone again and the conversation turned to my sister. “She was always smart,” he said. “But more importantly, she’s also psychic. I’m sure of it.”
And for the first time in my life, I thought, “So are you, Dad.”
Though I didn’t mean psychic in that he could see ghosts or know what card I’d drawn. Instead, it was an intense sensitivity to the emotional quality of whatever was being thought nearby him. It could make hanging around with him a little unnerving. If I thought it, he would mention it somehow. Until that evening, I had always thought he was insensitive; but it was just the opposite. Some of what I had called rude was just him turning his back mentally on other people so as not to ride their emotional train.
Then, three years ago, my father, at the age of seventy-seven, made an announcement. “I’ve figured out the reason I am the way I am, Bill.”
“I have Asperger’s syndrome.”
He’d been doing some reading and the pieces all came together: the discomfort in social situations; the tendency to monologue rather than volley back and forth in conversation; the preference for facts over feelings; his love of numbers and his frustration with art; his discomfort with ambiguity and his love of rules. He wasn’t just Asperger’s, he was classic Asperger’s.
It was a great relief to him. “What is wrong with me?” was a question that had followed him most of his life – as it does most of us, I think. Now he had his answer. There wasn’t anything wrong with him. He was just Asperger’s. This is how people with Asperger’s behaved. He was behaving exactly the way an Asperger’s person should behave.
In my experience with my son, who was diagnosed on the autism spectrum ten years ago, and all my life with my father (who has perhaps accurately self-diagnosed himself), I no longer believe these words – autism and Asperger’s – refer to something anyone can have. They are just words used to describe a collection of behaviors we once believed inhibited a person’s capacity to thrive.
I do believe, however, that no one – not my father with his psychic sensitivity, nor my sister, nor any medium or doctor or scientist – can know the future in its inevitable wholeness. I’ve tried my hand at this kind of prediction and I’ve been wrong every time. I was wrong when I predicted doom, and I was wrong with I predicted glory. The only time I’ve been right about life is when I’ve seen that there is never anything wrong with it or anyone.
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.