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.

Two resolutions

M and C, twin brothers, playing electronic devices next to each other I don’t generally believe in New Year’s resolutions, but this year I have two.

1: Be more patient with M

C’s non-autistic twin, M, is what you’d call a Big Personality Kid—he can take over a room with his presence. And yet, through all the tumult of our lives, all the health and developmental issues, I’ve expected this little boy to toe the line, to make life easy—to avoid adding to the chaos. That’s unfair to any kid, let alone one who’s gone through as much as he has.

2: Take care of my health

I haven’t had a physical in four years. I haven’t had a real feet-up vacation in about a decade. That’s nonsense. It’s not good for me, and it’s not good for my family. First, I’m going to make an appointment with my GP. Second, I’m making a three-year plan: there will be a Real Vacation by 2019 come hell or high water. Or both.

So, what are your resolutions?

A chat with geese

C with the geese "Let's see the ducks," C says. It's actually more of a demand, and it's the same each time we're at this particular playground, usually after he's had his fill of the cacophony and chaos of other children.

We walk a couple hundred yards down a gentle hill to the pond where the "ducks" are. Actually, they're mostly geese with a few ducks and an occasional swan thrown in for good measure, but "ducks" is C's shorthand.

The waterfowl congregate in the water before C, hoping he'll throw some bread in the water as most other people do. Instead, C orates.

C orating before geese

Unable or unwilling to talk with the other children in the playground, he has no problem speaking to the birds floating before him. "Hello, ducks!" he says brightly.

He'll pick one out and ask, "What days do you want to be line leader?" (He's obsessed with being line leader at school, so naturally he assumes everyone else — including the "ducks" — must be as well.)

Sometimes he'll give one of them a name. On this particular day he christened one, "Duck Bird Fundun." Although the goose doesn't know it, this is quite an honor: "Fundun" is C's pretend surname, so that makes the bird a member of his family.

C with geese

When no breadcrumbs are offered, the geese eventually grow impatient and start to drift away. Concerned he's losing his audience, C picks up some bits of rock and bark and throws them in the water. He's pleased with his strategy as the geese swim back eagerly. He's not teasing them; he just assumes their joyful paddling and honking mean this is what they want. Upon realizing the ruse, the geese swim away for good, C staring at them slightly confused.

...

C in a playground with other children

Last night I pondered C's affection for the geese. He's not that fond of other animals; in fact, he wouldn't even go near a friendly, trained aid dog at a recent autism event. I think he likes the geese because they gather around him, but never get too close. They won't leave the bounds of the pond, and yet they swim just close enough to give him the sense of connection he desires. Push-pull. Engaged but at a distance.

Maybe if the children in the playground were a little more like the geese — willing to get close without intruding — they'd have better luck with C, too.