The year my son Sawyer officially received the unsurprising diagnosis of high functioning autism was the same year I looked in the mirror and realized I had become the failure I had spent my life fearing I would one day be. My son’s challenges were clear: he was seven years old with a significant delay in his language comprehension, a delay with which he coped by retreating into a pretend world where he understood everything that was being said, where he was never wrong, and where he was the unequivocal hero of his journey, not a confused spectator at the circus of life. From the outside, his pretending looked strange: he would run back and forth humming, flapping his hands, and mumbling portions of what he was thinking. This is what he spent much of his time doing at home and at school. Needless to say, teaching him was incredibly difficult, and making friends was nearly impossible.
My challenges were less hard to recognize. From the outside, I was doing all right. I had a wife I loved, a home, and two boys I adored. But I was a failure, you see, because I was in my 40s and making a living as a waiter and not as a writer. In this way, the evidence was in. It seemed to me that if a doctor were to diagnose my life he would need only add up my rejection slips, my unpublished books, my age, my unrealized ambition, and come to one unhappy though dutifully obvious conclusion: Failure. And so I too spent much of my life in a secret fantasy world, a world in which I was not a failure, a world where what I wrote was read by other people, where what I said mattered, and where the answer from the world on the question of Bill was always Yes instead of always No.
Meanwhile, my wife and I did not really know how to be Sawyer’s
parents, but we were determined to learn. Practically speaking, the first truly
effective choice we made was to join him. That is, instead of telling him to
stop pretending, we started pretending. When he flapped, we flapped; when he
hummed, we hummed. I can still remember the moment my wife first joined him in
this way, how he stopped humming and flapping and turned to her and said,
“What are you doing?” It seemed miraculous, but it was not. By joining him, by
following his lead instead of continually insisting he follow ours, for the first
time in Sawyer’s short life he wasn’t wrong.
When it was my turn to join him,
I understood that to do so effectively I must not imitate his humming and
flapping; to join him, I must actually choose to hum and flap. To join him, I
must find my own pleasure in what he was doing. When I finally did so, I felt
an immense relief. Prior to that moment, in my mind, nearly everything he did had
been wrong. It is exhausting to call something someone else is doing wrong. So much easier to see the world as mysteriously correct, if even for a moment.
And so began my long journey that
is being Sawyer’s father. Along the way my wife and I made as many mistakes as
we did discoveries. When we should have pulled him out of school we left him
in; when we should have sought more help we went it alone; when we should have
made him speak to get what he wanted, we spoke for him. Despite our trials and
errors, Sawyer gradually began emerging from his pretend world. And as he
emerged from his pretend world, I began to emerge from mine. When I saw him
stop pretending to build with Legos, I understood that, like the schoolwork he
regularly ignored, I had been trying to write stories that weren’t of actual
interest to me. When I rejected doctors’ prognosis for Sawyer’s future based
only on what I knew emotionally but could not prove intellectually, I found the
security to leave restaurant work without knowing how I would make a living,
but trusting that I would.
I am fortunate that Sawyer is my
son. There are days I do not feel that way. There are days I imagine how much
simpler my life would be if he could go to school and make friends like 99% of
the other children in the world. But I used to imagine a lot of things before
Sawyer was my son. I used to spend many hours imagining what life would be if I
were happy. I have since turned my gaze from the world as I wished it would be
to the world as it is. It is a better world than the one I could have imagined,
and the more clearly I have been able to see it, the more convincingly I have
been able to invite Sawyer to leave his imaginary world and join me there.