Whenever I find myself in conversation with anyone about whether or not a person can be broken, it’s not long before Adolf Hitler raises his mustachioed head. After all, who but a broken person could have dreamed and made Auschwitz? It’s all very well and good to look at your child with his various challenges and say he isn’t broken, but are we really to extend this perspective to monsters like Hitler? The answer, almost without exception, is no.
It is an odd leap from children we call autistic to history’s worst villains, but it’s one I inevitably found myself making just the same. I had grown up believing in monsters. Monsters were in the movies I watched and in the books I read; they were in the newspapers, and the stories my friends and I told one another. Sometimes they were on street corners or across the playground. These monsters were the boys and men (they were always boys and men) whose actions were inexplicably cruel to me. We called their affliction evil, a thing, it would seem, that could infect a person like a permanent virus and reduce him to something less than human.
Yet how is this so different than what we have come to call autism? We call a child autistic when his actions are inexplicable to us, and often view autism as something that has happened to our children. I soon had no use for this view of my son’s behaviors. Either he had freewill or he didn’t. If he had freewill, if he had the power to choose what he would say and what he would do, then I would help him choose those behaviors that were in service to his life. Until he proved to me that he had no power to choose his behaviors, I would treat him as if he did.
It wasn’t long before my mind drifted to those monsters I had lived my life quietly fearing, monsters of the past and monsters of the present. What but their behaviors had earned them their monstrous title? And what exactly is the behavioral line one can cross where an action is no longer the manifestation of a perception – of seeing an enemy where there is actually a friend; of seeing a threat where there is actually safety – and is instead the command of a force greater than us, where our bodies and minds become but puppets to some invisible and wicked puppeteer?
I found it impossible to hold in my mind these two opposing views humanity, to look at my boy or myself and say, “We are innocent. We are not broken because we are not our behaviors,” and then look at the men I called monsters and say they were guilty. If Hitler could be guilty then I could be guilty and Sawyer could be guilty. And so did I forgive Hitler in that moment? Not really. He was still mostly a caricature of evil in my imagination, as were many of the serial killers and dictators living and dead.
I was not, however, going to hold my life hostage to these men’s gaudy atrocities. There are people I love, whom I trust and adore, who have, while caught in the momentum of anger and frustration and fear, spoken unkindly to me. In those moments, as I learned to do with Sawyer and those behaviors we called autistic, I have looked past my friends’ words to who they truly are. I cannot require myself to see everyone in the world with the same intimate clarity with which I see the people I know and love. I do not have God’s eyes. But I can hold within my heart the knowledge that no one is broken, and have faith in that which is beyond my current perception. Most of the world is beyond my current perception, and yet I can love it just the same if I can only trust that a stranger desires love the same as I desire it now.
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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.