“The Boys of Autism”
Back when we were in India for our wedding, waaaay back when, my family rented a house for the duration of our sari shopping/logistical planning phase of the whole shindig. The lady who helped us rent it was a close family friend, and she would pop in often while we were in residence, and often brought her grandkids with her. I was far removed from special needs then, and only vaguely registered that her grandson had a developmental disability.
One morning, I had just taken a shower, and was in my bedroom, putting the finishing touches on getting dressed, when I had that prickly awareness that someone else was in the room. I looked at the doorway and jumped out of my skin to see the grandson standing there, watching me, and smiling. I was only a tad older than him, so I felt violated, and because I didn’t understand the innocent lack of boundaries, I did assume some malevolent intent. The same thing happened another day as I was putting in my contacts.
I became mildly concerned about the boy’s fixation on me, and made sure to stay close to my mom or brother whenever they came over. Nothing bad ever happened, but I now understand how it was probably more about being transfixed by someone’s methodical actions rather than about being creepy.
I’m on the other side of this fence now. I’m the parent who hopes for acceptance, who tries not to shut her son away, and who can feel the loneliness of that grandma who was trying not to let the walls close in on her, and who needed to believe that there were people out there who would not retreat in antipathy, people who would allow her and her family some continued and meaningful engagement with the world.
These beautiful boys of autism. They don’t have the guile to hide their eager interest, the self restraint to suppress their strong emotions. Everything can be read in their intermittent gazes, their expressive hands, their full throated birdsong. And yet they are such a conundrum. We assign intent where perhaps nothing but a wish to make a friend was. We fear their outbursts, but forget to check our own actions to see what upset them. And we sometimes wither under the weight of their anxious scrutiny, even knowing how much they depend on our cheerful reliability.
Society is justifiably programmed to worry about the strength and motives of young men. More so if they have developmental disabilities, and people can’t read their intentions easily. And while we can have important conversations with neurotypical young men about how to use their powers for good, how to take no for an answer, and how to be non-mansplaining allies to women, while still soaring and being happy and successful (if they will listen), some of our more severely autistic men will never be able to have conversations that are this profound or abstract.
We mustn’t be afraid to show them the world, but we also mustn’t be enablers. I want A to be loved and accepted, and am putting the work into teaching him social skills. I admit, though, that it breaks me when people don’t want to be around him. When G’s friends stopped coming over because his gentle pats on their arms horrified them. When a sibling absorbed the lesson that there would be no more play dates, and learned to live with it. I won’t pressure anyone to come over, and I don’t want anyone here who doesn’t want to be here.
There are no easy answers to any of these heartbreaks. We have to construct our own guideposts. Back when I was a sari-shopping bride, I had no way of knowing that all this profundity was waiting for me. But when I gave birth to my autism boy, I also hurtled into a new awareness. On this side of things, there is more to do, feel and fear than I had ever imagined, but also more connectedness, more sweetness, and such a huge pile of sincerity that we all fall onto whenever it’s just us. I don’t think I could live without that now.