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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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?

Progress happens

C with one of his teachers post-concert Two years ago, my son's previous school held a holiday concert. C had to be supported on stage by a teacher's assistant because he was so overwhelmed. The concert was loud and chaotic, all the more surprising since his school served children who often have major sensory issues. But his reticence to be part of the event went deeper than that: he was struggling.

Fast forward: C's current school had a holiday concert this week, and he was beaming with pride and joy, so confident and happy to be part of the show. In fact, when it was his turn to sing, he put on this deep voice and belted out his lyrics, silly as he was earnest. He even had to be pulled away from the mic, he was so excited. He danced and sang with glee.

So what happened in the intervening two years?

The concert was better planned than the one at the old school, it's true—not so overwhelming from a sensory perspective. But his ability to participate was due to much more than that. For one thing, the staff and teachers at his new school deserve a ton of credit for helping him to become so confident.

But on top of that is this: progress happens. Naturally, of its own accord, with support and love.

It's easy to forget that our kids, just like all kids, make progress. Sure, regression happens, but progress happens, too. It might look different for autistic kids vs. their non-autistic peers, but it's still progress.

Progress happens.