Several years ago the book The Dyslexic Advantage by Drs. Brock and Fernette Elde came across my desk. The idea behind the book was quite simple: Dyslexia is not a disease but an orientation with its own inherent advantages and disadvantage. It had only been treated like a disease because A) we gave it a name; and B) parents and the therapeutic community had focused solely on the disadvantages, such as struggles with reading.
It is perfectly natural to focus on what we perceive as disadvantages. I do this all the time with myself. Something I want is not coming to me effortlessly; in fact, it may not be coming to me at all. At times it seems as if this thing that I want is all that stands between me and happiness. That being the case, I focus more and more of my attention on this desire that became a challenge that is now becoming a problem until I have forgotten all those parts of my life that are not a challenge and it seems as if my whole life is nothing but a problem in need of fixing. This is also sometimes called “self-improvement.”
Reading The Dyslexic Advantage I was reminded of a conversation I had with Sawyer years ago. His pretending, I explained, was like a superpower. It was as if one of his hands possessed immense strength. With this hand he could grind rocks into dust. Unfortunately, lacking fine control, that same hand shattered glasses whenever Sawyer tried to take a drink. Because drinking a glass of water is more common and practical than crushing rocks, this superpower was most often seen as a disadvantage. Our goal then was not “cure” him, but to help him learn to harness his power.
Sawyer was uninterested in this explanation when I offered it to him nearly ten years ago, and he is largely uninterested in it now. He is uninterested in it for the same reason most of us are uninterested in it: because he is unhappy when he runs up against those challenging parts of his life. He wants something and he cannot have it. He is unhappy that he cannot have it. He wants to be happy. What is wrong with him that he cannot have that which would make him happy? Don’t talk to me, he says, about challenges and superpowers and learning and evolution, just give me that damn thing so that I can be happy!
And I think, welcome to the human race, my son. I’m going to go out on a limb here and say that we will never cure autism or learn what causes autism because it doesn’t exist. What we call autism has spread like an epidemic because our definition of it has spread from people who would not talk or respond to touch to people like my son as we have begun to recognize the connection between the two, once too distant to see, now increasingly apparent.
Perhaps a day will come when we will all be called autistic, when we recognize within everyone the temptation to retreat from others, to turn away and avoid the glare of attention, to think only of our own needs and not the needs of others. And should that day come, just like with a fatal disease, perhaps something within all of us will die. Perhaps if we all believed we had caught autism, it would be the death once and for all of our belief in broken people.
I was standing with Sawyer at the pet store where we volunteer once a week when I noticed a father and his young son near the wire gate used to keep the cats we oversee from escaping into the store proper. It’s a freestanding gate, and the boy discovered that if he pulled on it the gate would tilt toward him. How interesting! He pulled some more and it tilted still further. The father noticed and touched the son’s arm and set the gate back to standing. The boy began pulling on it again, and the father righted the gate once more and gently nudged his son toward the fish tanks.
It had been years since I’d cared for a child that age, and I’d nearly forgotten this constant dance. All the boy knew was that pulling on the gate was interesting; it was the father’s job to know that the gate was meant to remain upright. So the father intercedes, as he will when the boy raises his voice in the library, or pulls candy from a grocery store shelf, or wanders toward a busy street. This dance has as much to do with preventing the child from the disturbing the order of things, as teaching that child that such an order actually exists.
All at once I understood the root of the most common conflict between Sawyer and me. When do I stop righting gates for him? It was simpler with my older son, who through his grades, and his manners, and his sense of humor demonstrated that he had an understanding of the Established Order and could operate comfortably within it. Sawyer, meanwhile, not only has less awareness of this order, but is frequently contemptuous of those parts of which he is aware. “Why can’t I say whatever I want to say?” he asks me. “People are too sensitive!”
There might actually be less conflict between us if I had a deep reverence for what I perceive as the Established Order – but I do not. I have lived much of my life feeling penned in by other people’s feelings over which I have from time to time accidentally trampled in my efforts to express what I believe to be The Truth. I have pulled on many a gate in my life, and not enjoyed the ruckus that followed its crashing to the ground. Yet ruckus is only noise, and when quiet returns so does the true order of things in which I can decide if I want to stand that gate or leave it on the ground.
I have reached that uncomfortable precipice where I must largely let Sawyer pull on as many gates as he wishes. While I prefer peace to discord, agreement to argument, I know too that there are plenty of gates in the world that ought to come down. Who better than these kids we have called autistic to pull on them, who have proven by their mere existence that our definition of a meaningful life remains too limited? That definition can have no limit. Such a limit pens every one of us, standing between us and our life as we are meant to lead it.
When I say that no one is broken, I mean that no one needs to be fixed. This does not mean, however, that I believe everyone should remain exactly as they are. Quite the contrary. If working with my son Sawyer has taught me nothing else it is that the question is not if things will change in my life but how they will change. Or, more specifically, how can I be a conscious participant in those inevitable changes, rather than a victim to a tide of changes that seem beyond my control?
For me, the answer was to abandon the idea that anything needs fixing. This was not so easy because I am constantly aware of conditions in my life with which I am dissatisfied or with which I disagree. If I don’t like something, I want it to change, I want it to improve, and something that has been improved has been made better has been fixed. That’s the way of the physical world.
Except it isn’t. For instance, once upon a time I very much wanted Sawyer to stop running and flapping and humming and start communicating with us when we spoke to him. His constant pretending, as we called it, was a problem that needed fixing. It made school nearly impossible and it made parenting nearly impossible. Problem. And that problem was in him; ergo, he needed to be fixed.
Our efforts to fix him, to improve him, to correct him inspired no change other than to drive him deeper into his pretend world. It was when we found joining, which was the practice of doing whatever he did with him, that we began to see the sort of changes we so desired. Yet joining was not fixing. Joining was a way to offer Sawyer another option in a language he could understand. The option we were offering was the experience of being with other people, and the language he could understand was the thing that he was already doing. Things changed, but nothing was actually fixed.
Just as there is nothing wrong with Sawyer, so too is there nothing wrong with me. But just like Sawyer, I am always seeking new experiences that better match the life I would like to live. Those new experiences become my expanded perception of what is possible, and from that expanded perception I will seek still more experiences and perceptions.
But not if I try to fix myself. Why would I want an expanded version of a broken thing? No matter how wretched I sometimes feel, no matter how compelled I feel to right this wrong that has led me to this wretched place, it is only in my appreciation of what is that I can find what I love and seek more of it. It is easy to seek more of what I love; it is impossible to eliminate what I do not. I did not fix Sawyer; I simply sought more ways to be with him rather than try to eradicate the ways I could not be with him.
I am constantly relearning this lesson. How contrary it seems that I must love the thing I wish to change. Dissatisfaction and criticism and judgment and even violence seem like perfectly reasonable responses to a wretched world. And so I try them, and so they don’t work, and so I feel so wretched that I have no choice but to seek one thing in this wretched world that pleases me, and there it is, and now I am on my way again.
Be careful what you don’t wish for. When my wife was pregnant with our first son, she began searching Seattle for a good midwife. Having thought little about this, I started from a default idea of how babies are brought into the world - namely, in a hospital surrounded by nurses, a doctor with a stethoscope around his or her neck, and as many beeping machines as possible. Given that the baby was growing in her body, I acquiesced. “But no home birth,” I said.
Three months later, after our midwife had run into some complications with the hospital where she had privileges, and having been thoroughly schooled in the natural process that is childbirth, I heard myself tell my wife, “‘Screw it. We should just do it at home.” Which we did. And all was well.
Once both our boys were old enough for school, it was to school they went. Meaning, as I told my wife early on, “I don’t care how rough it gets, no way on God’s green and spinning earth am I home schooling.” Several years later, when things got exceptionally rough for Sawyer in school, I heard myself ask him, “Do you want to just stay home from now on?” He said he did. And all was well.
Except sometimes all does not seem to be well. I was not home schooled. I went to a series of very traditional public schools where teachers asked questions and I did my best to give correct answers. The teachers always gave you the answers first, and all you had to do was remember them. Since I could usually remember them, school was all right.
Now I am the teacher. I know most of the stuff I believe Sawyer needs to learn, and so I believed I would explain it to him, he would remember it, and that would be that. Only this model did not work for Sawyer in public school, and it does not work for him at home. He does not want anyone telling him what to do, or what to think, or what to read, or what to write, or what to care about. In fact, he does not really want to do anything unless the idea for doing this thing came directly from him.
Which would be fine if my student wanted to write something, or read something, or make something, but often my student claims he does not. So what’s a teacher to do? The answer is perhaps the real reason I did not want to home school: The heart of learning and creativity and life itself is always trust. The worst thing I can do is believe Sawyer when he tells me he isn’t interested in anything. Humans are built to be interested, the same as a woman is built to bring life into the world. The greatest pain of life is always to doubt what we are, to doubt the contraction is meant to help prepare the body for delivery, to doubt that curiosity’s ceaseless creative impulse will be answered.
In this way, all my most useful teaching occurs when I am done doubting and have begun waiting and listening. It is hard for him to hear his own answers if I am jabbering in his ear about how important it is for him to be interested in life, and it is hard for me perceive his curiosity at work if I am busy trying to give it to him. So I get quiet and wait--wait through my fear that nothing will happen, wait through my fear that some people just aren’t smart enough or good enough or curious enough, wait and wait until I hear that first sound of life, a quiet question in search of answer, and I remember that all is well.
A couple years ago my son Sawyer decided that he hated all religions. Religions were an example of what was wrong with the world. Religious leaders were always telling people how to live their lives, and people who believed in different religions invariably thought that the best way to settle their differences was to kill one another. My wife and I tried pointing out all the good that religious thought and religious people had brought about in the world—the end of American slavery, for instance, was spearheaded by some of the North’s most fervently religious men and women—but Sawyer would have none of it.
So I decided to go to the source. As a part of our homeschooling we cracked open The Bible, page one, In the beginning. I hadn’t thought of it until rereading the creation story with Sawyer that everything God creates, from the light and the dark to the things the creepeth and crawleth, is good. The whole of creation, top to bottom, day and night, fish and fowl—good.
Then we came to Adam and Eve and The Tree. I seemed to recall that The Serpent convinced Eve to eat from The Tree of Knowledge. Growing up in a secular family, this made sense to me, as it mirrored what I perceived as the public debate between scientists, who valued knowledge, and religious people, who valued faith.
Yet in the version of The Bible from which Sawyer and I read it was not eating from The Tree of Knowledge that got Adam and Eve booted out of Eden, but The Tree of Knowledge of Good and Bad. This made perfect sense to me. As soon as I divide the world into good and bad I have created a threat from which there is no rational escape. If I divide the world into good and bad, then anything could be bad, including me.
Which is exactly what happened when I started seeing Sawyer’s pretending and humming and flapping as a problem. Now this behavior was no longer simply something he was doing, but something bad he was doing. I was out of The Garden, and I hated it. Everything of value grew in The Garden, but nothing grew in the broken world outside of it. All I wanted was to be back where things could grow, including my son. In this way, Sawyer became a kind of portal into what I most wanted in my own life. To judge him was to be excluded; to love him was to return.
I am in and out of that garden every day. Meanwhile, I have noticed that Sawyer no longer sees religion as the source of all that is wrong in the world. He has moved on to other issues. For a time both Obama and The Tea Party were the problem. Now it’s ISIS. I don’t know what it will be tomorrow. No matter. He’s looking for his own gate into a world where he need never worry again that what he is doing is wrong.
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.