Nantucket Essays

Different, Not Less

He is no longer a boy.

His beard comes in thick and red, as if Finn McCool were to come back up those Irish rocks and sit with us at the Papa Gino’s. He has grown taller than his parents and has grown stronger than both. When he bounces off the wall and into you, you fall back a step in his apologies. Clean him, dress him, and hold his attention for a second, and he could grace the cover of the Phillips Andover Course Catalog.

Time, however, does not allow us such deceptions. Time pools for a second before it tumbles and rolls down the rocks and stream beds. The water races, cascades, flows slowly for a moment, and then cascades yet again. Or, if we are unlucky, it forms a small stagnant pool before slipping underground.

For this moment, time dances. In the car, on our way to ComicCon, the young man looms over his brother’s shoulder until the first few notes of “Everything is Awesome” flows through the air and, after a few tentative moments, he bounces. His arms flutter, his head rocks back and forth, and the song courses through him. At his size, the car bounces on its springs and rocks when he begins to sway.

Music has washed through him since he rocked out in the baby carrier. “Baby Beluga” became “Thomas the Tank Engine” which settled into “Rescue Heroes” then “Mr. Poopy Pants,” “Copacabana,” “Imperial March,” “The Theme from Swat,” and now “Hooked on a Feeling.” When he was a boy and bedeviled by the angels of Autism, we would go for long, soaring drives through his playlists until he calmed himself. Here he is now, bouncing around the back seat to the beats in his headphones.

In his great bouncing joy, his age gets rumpled and stained. The boy shakes off the trappings of adult hood and dances in his seat. For a moment, you witness the untouched joy that washes through him.

Then it’s gone…

The past is another country. They did things differently there. For my autistic boy, the past wandered back up the side of the mountain, into the woods and brush. We got to today by tumbling, falling, and getting back up again and again. Today survived yesterday and left it in the dark.

Yesterday was no picnic. Yesterday broke windows and put its fist through a wall.   Yesterday tore his clothes off, ran circles around the school, and bruised himself with his fists. Yesterday screamed and begged to die. It is a fine thing to sit in the front seat of the car and see Yesterday fade in the mirror while the young man reads comic books. The years battered us, but left us unbowed. You can’t help but be impressed at how far back Yesterday has fallen.

Tomorrow remains a problem and a promise. It won’t have a soccer team or touchdowns. It won’t have student councils, AFS trips to France, and Habitat for Humanity projects. It will have more “Time Outs” and anger and frustration and then more tests. High school will proceed along the state marked channel, bounced from one wall to the other until education ends in a gown, tassel, and a ride back home to the wide ocean and our sandy world.

Tomorrow makes cruel promises. So many doctors and researchers tease out the mysteries of autism. With all of the attention to the chemistry and challenges of autism, some sort of therapy looms years away, a therapy that would allow the young man to stand in a kitchen and bake rolls. Or, even better, a treatment which would wake the young man from his past like a dream.

Temple Grandin, the Holy Mother of autistics, preaches that we are all “different, not less.” For you and I, our master has given us our talents and we have invested them as others have. We have gone to school, we have worked hard, we have been patient, lucky, and endured the fickle currents of careers.   Isolated in his autism, my son cannot invest his coins. Instead, he buried his talents deep in the dirt and our task is to bring them back up into the air. Temple Grandin suggests that teachers and parents stop lamenting what can’t be done and start celebrating what could. Her path into the light came through drawing horses, which led her to a career, and a world beyond the shadows.

So, I hope to see this dream with my son. He doesn’t not draw well, but he reads. He has a chest full of super heroes and mighty villains that he has read, re-read, and mastered. He creates worlds for them with their own stories and their own pathways to greatness. He has built a mansion of heroes, complete with ballrooms, moats, and dungeons. They have led him far; they have soothed him, taught him, and engaged him.

They brought us to ComicCon at Seaport World Trade Center. We waited in line for almost an hour, surrounded by characters in costume. It was hot, it was loud, it was crowded, and it smelled bad. The boy who once ran crying from a birthday party soaked it all in. He talked to strangers. He posed for pictures. He didn’t want to leave.

After three hours, I got tired of all the capes and masks, so I sat at a table with other tired adults. He and his brother took pictures of Deadpool and then went pawing through a stack of old comic books.

Perhaps this is it. Perhaps, these are Temple Grandin’s horses with masks and capes. His stream will not pool up and stagnate nor will it run deep underground, but will tumble down a stream bed of wall crawlers, Wolverines, and wendigos. The long buried gold talents have been unearthed and they lie glistening on the sullen ground. I mutter an irish prayer that it is enough.

He is no longer a boy.

Articles by Date from 2012