On love, empathy, and connectedness

Close up on the palm of a man's hand holding a tiny seedling.“Rock it,” Colin says. “Rock the baby to sleep.” This time the “baby” is a tiny seedling he’s placed in the palm of my hand. Now he cradles my hand in his, swaying it back and forth and humming Rock-a-bye Baby.

On love

Colin loves babies. He talks to them as though they can understand what he’s saying. “How old are you, baby?” “Did you cry when you were born, baby?” He doesn’t seem concerned that they don’t answer. For their part, babies seem intrigued by this large-but-not-full-sized human with giant eyes and so many questions.

Colin has his own small collection of babies. At the moment, it includes four stuffed dogs and a doll with blue hair that he found in the playground. The first of his babies was a flop-eared stuffed dog he named “Pokelyn.” The others he named Chipwich, Doglass, and Lucy. (I don’t think the doll has a name.) He takes one of his babies with him to school every day.

A small stuffed dog sticks its head out of a backpack

On empathy

If he can’t find one of his babies, Colin becomes frantic. He blames himself; he says he’s a “bad parent” for being careless. He worries that the missing baby is “not in this world anymore.” He imagines they must be scared and lonely. He hugs and kisses them when they’re found.

A small boy is hugged by his male therapist

On connectedness

Colin has a very special friendship with Aaron, one of his therapists. Unfortunately, however, Aaron is moving away. Colin wrote Aaron a farewell note. It read:

Der Aron I love you. Il miss you for along time. Love Colin

If you’re unfamiliar with autism, I’d ask you to keep these anecdotes about my son in mind the next time you hear someone—whether they’re a celebrity, well-regarded researcher, or just a friend or family member—say that autistic people lack empathy, that they’re not connected to others, that they’re incapable of true love.

Remember, also, that people experience and display emotions in different ways, and that doesn’t mean their emotions are any less authentic or meaningful than your own. Look for the connections. You’ll find them.

A speck in a sunbeam

A young boy walks through a large subway terminal.

We take Subway Adventures with Colin.

He decides the destination, and off we go. Times Square. Canal Street. Brighton Beach. This Sunday, I let him navigate. First stop: 125th Street in Harlem on the A train. He loves the A train because it runs express.

He was jump-dancing as we flew past each stop—72nd! 81st! 86th! 96th! 103rd! Cathedral Parkway! 116th!—gleefully calling out the names of each passing station. Passengers looked: some smiles, some scowls. I loved it.

Rather than exiting at 125th Street, we headed to the downtown platform and took the A train the entire length of Manhattan to the World Trade Center. Once there, we explored the new PATH Terminal. He flopped on the ground and stared up at the vaulted, cathedral-like ceiling. He took his shoes off and skittered about saying, “Ice skating!” Announcing, “The tile is cold,” he strode over to a section of floor bathed in sunlight.

I watched him walk away until he was just a speck in a sunbeam.

 

When we were done exploring the PATH Terminal, he led me to the 2 train so we could return to Columbus Circle. This was his afternoon, and he took the lead, choosing destinations, reading signs in the subway stations, finding the right train to get where we were going.

Reflecting on our adventure, I realized that this is what happens when we presume competence instead of incompetence. When we assume capability instead of inability. This is what happens when we encourage “What if?” instead of “Why not?”

I was so proud of Colin. More importantly, he was proud of himself.


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Phil, the barber

Phil cutting C's hair Doctors, dentists, barbers — none are going to get very close to C's head. He ducks and lurches, bobs and weaves like Ali. His anxiety and sensitivity are so profound, in fact, that dental work requires general anesthesia.

That's why we're so grateful for Phil.

Phil works at our local barbershop. He's a sturdy middle-aged man, taciturn except for a few words delivered with a Ukranian accent. He has deep-set blue eyes, close-cropped gray hair, and large hands that belie their fluid dexterity.

And he's the one stranger C lets near his head.

The first time C had his hair cut by Phil, I preemptively let him know that C was a little different and might be a tricky customer. Phil said only, "Yes, yes, I know," and got to work.

Well, C did his usual ducking and weaving, dodging and bobbing, but somehow through it all Phil was able to deliver a haircut. And not any haircut, but a damn fine haircut. Wherever C's head went, Phil's scissors followed, like a small bird relentlessly stalking elusive prey. He stayed cool through it all, even chuckling a bit at C's giggling and wiggling. (Quite different from another barber's running, muttering commentary about C's behavior.)

C, a couple of years ago, enjoying a post-haircut lolli

We've seen Phil several times, and C has grown quite comfortable with him — so much so that his antics are much more subdued now. Not reacting seems to be a winning strategy after all.

The best part, however, is Phil's obvious affection for C. As I said, he's a man of few words, but I see his smile broaden ever so slightly when C hops into his chair.

Phil still hasn't gotten near C's neck with the trimmer, though. Maybe next time.

...

Postscript: I started writing this post after our last visit to the barber. During that time, a few people shared a wonderful story about a barber who went to incredible lengths to give his young autistic customer a haircut. Here's to this barber, Phil, and all the other people who go the extra mile for our kids.

Sensory-seeking

C in front of a stucco wall Sometimes extreme sensory-seeking is a hassle. It means crashing into things, knocking things over, chewing everything in sight — even Dad's favorite chair.

C touching stucco

But sometimes-sensory seeking means bear hugs, tightly held hands, and experiencing the pure joy of a stucco wall.