I began learning some hard lessons about freewill when Sawyer’s older brother Max first arrived on the scene. My wife described five year-old Max as a C. E. O. without a company to run. He would occasionally say to me, “Dad: here’s what I need you to do,” with such authority that I had to remember who was the adult and who was the child. As a child boss, he would also throw tantrums when I was insubordinate, which, not recognizing my employee status, I frequently was. One such tantrum got so obnoxious I decided it was time to drop the hammer. “Max!” I bellowed. “Go to your room!”
Max stared back at me in confusion. “No,” he said matter-of-factly.
I darkened my voice and pointed in the direction of his bedroom door with as much menace as I could muster. “I said: Go. To. Your. Room.”
“But I don’t want to.”
There it was. Size and age, it turns out, do not determine how free one’s will is nor it’s role in the direction of our lives. It is easy to forget this when your child behaves in such a way that he eventually receives a diagnosis of autism, high-functioning or otherwise. A diagnosis suggests a medical problem, which suggests lack of choice. Yet to treat any person as if they do not have a choice, as if they do not have freewill, is to forget that they are human.
At my worst, I fluctuated between believing Sawyer had no freewill and believing he was abusing just how free his will was. Either way, he was often doing stuff I didn’t want him to do. But when he was eleven we began a practice that he would name Happy Fun Time. For an hour before bed he had to play with us. His rules, his games, but it had to involve us, not just himself. Sawyer’s social challenges had stemmed from an unwillingness that sometimes seemed like an inability to play with others. Thus Happy Fun Time.
As Happy Fun Time progressed it occurred to me that for the first time he was choosing to play with others, and that he was choosing it because he had come to understand that it was as fun as playing by himself. Why would someone choose something he considered unpleasant? In this way, freewill and pleasure and pain are inextricably linked. We are all free, and we all want to be happy.
Happy Fun Time was good for a season, and we eventually moved on to other things. But it became a model for me. The page of everyone’s life is blank, and we must all decide how we will fill it. There’s no avoiding this. The best I can do for another person, whether it is my child or a friend or a stranger, is remember that everyone has the same job – to choose what makes us happy.