The essays I publish here could best be described as a spiritual view of what we call Autism. I am still somewhat uneasy with the word spiritual because of the many contradictory connotations surrounding it, but it remains the most accurate destination for what I wish to share. I have come to understand all spiritual teaching – whether in this space, or the books published by Hay House or New World Library, or in the Bible, or even from a particularly compassionate bartender – as an attempt to direct one’s attention to our unconditional wellbeing.
I spent most of my life being bounced around by conditions. I was bounced around by whether girls liked me or not, by rejection and acceptance letters, by my bank account, politics, sports, the weather. There are a lot of conditions and each one, it seemed, had the potential to make or break my day. And sometimes I made up the conditions. I would lie in my bed at night imagining a future where a trail of failure and bad luck led me to a wasteland from which there was no return.
About the time Sawyer came along and began to be observed and tested I started wondering if it had ever been the conditions that bounced me around. To see your son being observed can be a disorienting experience. As his father, my job had been to love him. Within love there is no right and wrong; there is only love. But I knew the experts observing him were noting what he had done right and what he done wrong on their little clipboards.
I did not like all this note taking they were doing, but was this not how the world worked? Was there not right and wrong all about me, and had I not lived my life naming this thing right and that thing wrong? Why should my little boy be spared the knife of good and bad? Because I loved him? How irresponsible to let a thing like love blind me to all that was wrong and prevent me from fixing it.
Fortunately, children teach adults far more than adults teach children. In his own way, Sawyer – like every child with every parent – asked me every day, “Which do you believe in more: Love, or right and wrong?” There was only one answer, of course, but oh how terrifying it seemed sometimes. How am I to protect myself from what is wrong unless I name it? How am I to stay safe from my enemies if I do not recognize them?
Sometimes choosing to love unconditionally feels like the last choice I’ll ever make. It as if I am lowering my shield, and only in that vulnerable moment will I learn the truth about the world. As soon as I lower it, however, I realize I would choose death over lugging that heavy shield about. I did not come here just to spend my days dodging and parrying blows. If life is not love then let it end, and if it is then let it be the only eyes through I see the world.
As I have mentioned before, the one thing my wife and I really did with Sawyer early on was to “join” him. Joining is the practice of doing exactly what the child is doing- the idea being that instead of asking Sawyer to stop humming and flapping and beating his chest and join us, we would join him by running and flapping and humming. The effects were immediate: Sawyer went from having five timeouts a day at school to one a week. Yet all we had done was to tell him, in the best language available, that he wasn’t wrong. At the time, it seemed like a small thing. It wasn’t a small thing.
I was talking to Sawyer last week as he worked on an essay that would be a kind of culminating project for this school year. Writing challenges our ideas of write and wrong. The author must decide word-by-word what is right and what is wrong. The answer lies entirely within him; no one can actually tell him if what he has chosen is right or wrong because what he is trying to express exists in a realm beyond anyone else’s perception.
For this reason, writing can be painstaking for Sawyer. He’s expressed how much he wants to write, but when confronted with the blank page his mind jumps to anything other than what he had set out to write. As he struggled to bring his attention to the essay, he talked about school. Sawyer has very strong ideas about school. If asked, he will tell you how the education system is broken, that the kids are treated like cattle, that their intelligence is not respected, that the schools are underfunded and old fashioned. On this day, he began his usual rant, but petered out on it quickly. He looked down at the half-written essay and sighed. “I was always wrong,” he said. “Everything I did was wrong.”
He meant not just the answers he gave in class, but his impulses to soothe himself. At that time he had a limited vocabulary of solutions to the problem of feeling uncomfortable. His best solution was to retreat within himself where he could focus on what he wanted to instead of what he was told to. But, in the world of school and – I must admit – his world at home, this was often called the “wrong” choice. How do you function if your strongest impulse is considered wrong? Where do you look to feel right?
It is simply impossible for me to feel safe and comfortable in the world while simultaneously distrusting my own impulses. When I distrust the silent guidance that helps me choose words and careers and friends I am instantly lost. I have no idea what is right and wrong anymore and I too want to retreat to an island within where nothing can be wrong. Sometimes, however, I do not understand my own impulses, and my translations are awkward and rarely fit easily into the world.
It is as at these times that I most tempted to call myself wrong, and to curse that impulse for it’s wayward guidance. But the guidance is never wrong – not for me, not for Sawyer, not for anyone. It just sometimes asks me to go where I do not believe I am ready to go, or to say what I do not believe I am ready to say. The impulse frequently contradicts a story I believe the world is telling me about good and evil, about love and talent and poverty and wealth and fame and peace. What am I to believe at these crossroads? Obey the impulse and risk being called wrong by others, or disobey it, and know that I will have wronged myself?
This blog and coming book are called No One Is Broken but they could just as easily be called Nothing Is Broken. It is really impossible for the first to be true and not the second. After all, the natural world isn’t broken. The natural world is not in argument with itself. Animals may kill one another, but this is the natural world consuming itself in order to create more of itself. Likewise, a desert is not a broken ocean, and an erupting volcano is not a misbehaving mountain. The natural world is doing exactly what it is meant to do, just as not one thing in this universe is meant to remain exactly the same forever, not even the stars.
But then we have people. We are also a part of the natural world, but with one powerful addition: an imagination. I love my imagination, I love using it, strengthening it, delighting in it, and yet it is also the source of all my suffering. It is through my imagination that I worry about the future and through my imagination that I relive some old grievance from the past. And it is my imagination that looks at someone’s behavior, even my son’s, and in a heartbeat concocts a story of a lifetime of failure and shame if that behavior never changes even though everything in the universe is perpetually changing.
It is the imagination, in short, that paints a picture of a broken world. I do not mean to demonize our imagination, however. It is an entirely loyal servant. If I casually ask myself, “What if Sawyer never changes?” then my loyal imagination will dutifully show me a dystopia where all is ruin. Interestingly, it was Sawyer’s relationship to his imagination that started this little journey. He could focus on the stories he was telling himself so intensely that we could not get his attention. I told him once that it was as if he had a superpower, and that it his job to learn to master it so it wasn’t mastering him.
But we all have this same superpower. When I see a broken world, I am really seeing a story I am telling myself. If I do not recognize it as a story, then I will try to fix that world. This is what I often found myself doing with Sawyer early on. Fixing problems that don’t exist only creates more problems that don’t exist that need more fixing. It is an endless and exhausting and cycle.
Sawyer taught me to question what I was calling reality. If no one is broken, I eventually asked myself, and if I am seeing a broken person, I must be seeing that person inaccurately. If no one is broken, if nothing is broken, what am I actually seeing that I am calling broken? Now my loyal imagination shows me another world. My imagination is capable of showing me as many worlds as I have questions. It doesn’t care; it doesn’t judge. It is happy to provide whatever I ask for.
I know that if you are reading this you are probably an adult. I know an adult is supposed to be responsible and realistic. I know the children for whom you feel responsible can toddle about in their pretend worlds, but you must contend with life at is actually is. You’re the one paying the bills and cooking the meals and voting for presidents. But if you want to be really responsible, begin with your imagination. Use it responsibly. Ask it to show you the world you want to live in, and you may discover that you already do.
For most of us, our children are where we first remember what it is to love something unconditionally. And by unconditionally I mean loving someone without one single because. We do not love that person because they are beautiful or because they are kind or because they are successful or flatter us or like the same things we do. When we love someone unconditionally we love them simply because they are.
This is particularly so with newborns. The newborn offers us nothing to love but their presence. The infant cannot tell a joke or dance a jig; the newborn cannot offer us advice or listen to our problems; in fact, the newborn will not even return our smile. The newborn can breathe, eat, cry, and generate volumes of dirty diapers. And yet we love that newborn. We love that newborn for no reason whatsoever. It is a love without proof or explanation or profit. It is love for love’s sake, and in that moment we hold the newborn in our arms, we understand, if only for that moment, how this is actually enough.
In an ideal world, in a Garden of Eden world, our relationship to our children, and our friends, and strangers, and ourselves would go unchanged. In an ideal world we would all continue to love ourselves and everyone around us simply for love’s sake. But by and by we all start doing stuff. We start walking and talking and making choices and expressing preferences. All the things we do create new conditions and we are not always happy with those conditions. Sometimes we don’t like the conditions we’ve created, and often we don’t like the conditions that other people have created. What to do, what to do? Sometimes the best answer seems to be to withhold love for the offending creator, even and particularly if we ourselves are that offender. That’ll teach us.
This is why the children we say are on the autism spectrum are such great teachers. Most of these children do not, cannot, or maybe will not behave the way we believe a person should behave. They do things they shouldn’t – like hum and flap – or they don’t do things they should – like answer to their names. Fortunately, most of these children begin misbehaving, so to speak, at such a young age that it is hard for us, at least as parents, to throw them under the bus of withheld love. But what to do? By the time we are old enough to have children we have slowly and consistently trained ourselves to believe that love, for some reason, must be earned.
The answer, of course, is obvious but not so easy. It is not so easy to undo the belief that love must be earned, that it is in fact quite conditional. “I won’t be treated this way!” we say. Or, “Show me you love me!” Such thoughts feel like a declaration of independence. They are quite the opposite. To love someone, whether that someone is your child on the autism spectrum or not on the autism spectrum, whether that someone is your lover or your neighbor, whether that someone is a stranger or yourself, means to see past the meaningless pantomime of behavior.
Often, I confess, I do not see past this pantomime. I can become hypnotized into believing someone is an enemy by his behavior. But every time I have succeeded in seeing past the veil of behavior I have beheld the same presence I perceived in a newborn’s still, unsmiling, unfrowning face. That perception is my only freedom. It is the way out of Hell, an unreal world where every moment I am required to re-grow a garden that is already thriving around me.
If you had ever asked me if I cared what anyone else thought of me as a parent, I would have honestly answered no. This is because most of my time as a father has been spent in the privacy of my house, where there are no relatives or strangers to offer opinions or shoot critical looks my way. Moreover, though it may take a village to raise a child, my relationship with my sons is wholly private. In fact, though we share nearly every thought that crosses our mind about our boys, my wife’s relationship with our sons is hers, and mine is mine because I cannot be her and she cannot be me.
Which is why I would have said I do not care what anyone thinks about me as a parent. Except I am not a shut-in. I must occasionally leave my home, and I sometimes take my children with me. Out and about in the world is where I most often sympathize with the autistic impulse to retreat into myself. I read recently about a woman who had had a profound near death experience that left her able – in her words – to read everyone’s thoughts. She spent most of the rest of her earthly life holed up in her house, protected from the ceaseless stream of other people’s interior lives.
Hers, it seemed to me, was merely an extreme example of what everyone can experience in some way or another. Though I cannot read minds, I can read the shifting inner weather of any friend or stranger I meet. I do not know the true cause of these shifts, but I sense them just the same, and I have learned – slowly – that to be happy in the world I must not concern myself with anyone else’s storms or even sunshine. They are not mine; they are as private as my relationship with my sons.
This is much easier to do when I am alone. But when I was with Sawyer in particular, and when as a boy he would run and flap in stores or on the street, or begin screaming because I would not buy him this or that, I felt my focus exploding outward. All at once my mind was filled with the thoughts of other people. That I was not hearing the thoughts but actually thinking them for these friends and strangers was irrelevant. Now I was living in a storm of shame and self-consciousness.
How appealing the autistic bubble seemed just then. The power to inoculate myself forever from the influence of other people even at the expense of love or friendship seemed well worth it. It did not matter that the storm was entirely within me. It was triggered by the combination of Sawyer’s behavior and the presence of another human being whose mind, for whatever reason, I could not trust. If only, like my son frequently seemed capable, I could simply go about the world as if these people did not exist. If only I could ignore them completely I could dwell forever on a sunny island, isolated but storm-free.
I am happy to report that I have chosen not to maroon myself. I do not need to isolate myself, but only remember myself. Though it is easy for me to become lost in the dream of other people’s thoughts, to find myself even in the most crowded of public squares is to return to where I have always lived. There I am home, where all relationships are in their proper, private order. There I am home, where other people are free to visit or not, and if I listen honestly there has only ever been the sound of the sea.
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.