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.
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.