I understand that when I say children on the autism spectrum “choose their behavior” it can sound vaguely judgmental. That is, in a courtroom a murderer’s guilt or innocence sometimes hinges on whether the accused understood right from wrong. If he did not understand the difference, then we call him insane, we acknowledge that his behavior is beyond his control, and we lock him up. If we determine that he did understand right from wrong, that he did what he did knowing it was wrong but not caring, then we call him evil, and we lock him up.
I have come to believe that all of our behavior is in a way beyond our control. Whether we are accused of murder or punishing our children, whether we are diagnosed on the spectrum or working on Wall Street, our behavior will always be an expression of our perception. It is our perception that we control. In other words, if you believe you see an enemy, you will behave as if the stranger coming toward you is an enemy. If you believe you see a friend, you will behave differently.
I learned this most acutely with Sawyer. For instance, we decided to begin homeschooling him when he was twelve. Despite all the teachers’ compassion and accommodation, school had become like a war-zone for Sawyer, a place where he always failed, and where, for a number of reasons, he could never rest. As soon as we began the homeschooling and working with Anat Baniel, it became clear that our first job was to help Sawyer remember what calm felt like.
His experience in school had left him with a kind of PTSD. He had been on the run so long he had forgotten it was normal. Or in other words, how can you choose something if you have forgotten it exists? It was our job to reintroduce calm into his life so that he could remember it and then choose it. In theory, he could have chosen it at any time, because calm always existed within him, but choosing calm in the middle of a war is far more challenging than in the peace of your living room.
I say I learned this with Sawyer, but I had recognized it years before. I was twenty-four and had just moved to Hollywood because I thought I would like to be a screenwriter. I too was on the run. Already I had been running from the threat of failure for years, and I had run so far and so blindly that I wound up in a city I disliked, pursuing a career for which I had no passion. No matter. Once I found success at something, anything, I would be able to rest.
And then one evening I found myself on the phone with Jennifer, whom I had met and fallen in love with when I was seventeen. She had moved to Seattle and we had lost track of one another, but now we were talking again. On this evening, I stood in my dim Venice apartment, talking and talking and talking. Talking to Jennifer had nothing to do with writing or movies or success. Talking to Jennifer was like a journey somewhere interesting but taken with someone else. We talked and talked and talked, and then it was time to hang up.
Once the phone was back in its cradle and I was alone with myself again, I felt something I had not felt in a very long time: I was at rest. It had been so long I had nearly forgotten what it felt like. I would spend nine months running around Hollywood, but Jennifer was always a phone call or a letter away, and I could not then forget what I had remembered. I would choose that restful place again, and again, and again until finally I followed it north out of Hollywood and to Seattle where I have been ever since.
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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.