When Sawyer was in elementary school, his teachers often said that he couldn’t focus. While all the other children in the class were giving their attention to their work, his invariably drifted into his imagination. This was true even after he agreed to do the work. The problem was so consistent that it appeared nearly mechanical in nature, as if there were some powerful force within his mind toward which his attention was drawn as surely and as predictably as a nail is drawn to a magnet.
I did not like this story of how Sawyer couldn’t focus, but it was hard to disagree with. It is difficult to have a relationship with someone whose attention seems pinned to the walls of his imagination, whether that relationship is between two friends, a teacher and a student, or a father and a son. My attempts to grow my relationship with Sawyer were nearly always thwarted by this magnetic pull that was stronger than my words, and stronger also than my punishments or rewards. It was so tempting in my most frustrated hours to simply lay the blame on this boogieman called Autism. There is no relationship because he can’t have a relationship because he can’t focus. No one is responsible for this non-relationship; only Autism, which cannot be seen or touched or negotiated with, is responsible.
Then one Christmas, when he was nearly eight, Sawyer requested a LEGO Spider Space Station as his Big Present. The box was the size of a flat-screen TV and warned that this toy was for ages 12-15. No matter, Christmas morning he took his Spider Space Station to his room and set to work. The instruction manual was as thick as a magazine. Sawyer sat on the floor with the instructions, his box of pieces, and slowly built the space station. He did this for three straight hours. He never flapped or hummed or pretended. He was focused. He was as focused as person could be.
It was then I saw the difference between can’t and isn’t. It was never true that Sawyer couldn’t focus; it was only true that he wasn’t focused. The boy who can’t focus is broken; the boy who isn’t focusing simply hasn’t learned how to focus. Moreover, even when we said he wasn’t focused, he actually was focused, only on something other than what we wanted him to focus on. Apparently, he had found something in his imagination more interesting to him than what our relationship was offering at that moment.
This is not an easy pill to swallow for anyone – friend, teacher, or father. His inattention seemed to suggest that I wasn’t interesting. As a writer, as a storyteller, as an entertainer, this is a kind of death. A writer’s entire value to his readers is based on how interesting he is. Yet as a writer, I had also learned that I could only lay my attention on a story long enough to tell it interestingly if I was interested in it. Was I interested in Sawyer? Was I interested enough in him to give him my full attention so that I could stop saying I couldn’t have a relationship and start learning how to have a relationship with him?
The answer is usually yes. But not always. There are still days where in a kind of parental exhaustion I think, “It is time for him to simply be interested in me!” This thought is nothing but Adult Onset Autism, the impulse to retreat from the world because I believe I can’t relate to it. Sawyer is always interesting when I focus on the window of interest we share, a window that might appear narrow at first, but which grows in breadth and possibility just as his Spider Space Station grew that Christmas.
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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.