While he was in school, Sawyer was a part of “inclusion programs,” meaning he spent most of his time in traditional classrooms with support. That support was a special education teacher who would be available to help him with the class work if he did not understand the instructions or to intercede if his behavior got out of line.
For many years, I could not imagine Sawyer functioning in the world outside of our house without this kind of support. There were days after I had reminded him to brush his teeth, get dressed, eat breakfast, go to the bathroom, come inside, put on his shoes, stay on the sidewalk, lower his voice that it seemed a wonder that he knew to breathe without me reminding him to. It can be a little exhausting sheepherding your son through life, but it also left me feeling needed and with the vague illusion that I was maintaining some control over a situation that frequently seemed teetering on the brink of chaos.
As a writing teacher and coach, students and clients come to me also looking for support. Facing a blank page and finding the story you most want to tell can feel like a lonely and frightening and chaotic journey. How does one know which is the right word or idea or character? Writing a story is a journey I have taken often enough now to know that I am never taking it alone. I may be the only one at my desk, but writing has always felt like a conversation, like a relationship, and as long as I remember to treat it as such, the answer to the question, “What should come next?” is always answered by and by.
This is the support I aim to offer my students and clients, to remind them that they already have everything they need to answer all their creative questions. I could never take the place of that friend we call our imagination, our muse, our guide. All I can do is remind them that such a friend exists.
So too with Sawyer. That friend to whom I turn in my creative life does not head home once I am done writing. He does not differentiate between the question, “How best should I describe this scene?” and, “What do I want for dinner?” It is all the same to him. It is easy to think that because Sawyer has appeared lost in the world that the same friend that has guided me through books and love affairs and careers has for some reason been mute in his life. It is easy to think I must be that friend.
But I cannot, and the friendliest thing I could do is to somehow remind him to listen to that which is already speaking to him, to remind him that he is fully equipped for is journey. Once he understands how supportive and loyal that friend is, he is going to leave. That is the direction of his life. A part of me can already feel how I will miss the unique intimacy this kind of parent-child relationship, but in truth he will not be taking with him on his journey anything I do not already possess. To believe otherwise is to believe we are all incomplete and unsupported, a lost herd of lonely sheep, set astray in a world in which freedom equals isolation.
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.
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.
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.