Knowing my boys and coping with autism
When I was a young child — I couldn’t have been much older than 3 years old — I would delight in watching the moon follow the car as we drove from place to place. I would peek up at the ghostly orb in amazement. At the time, I didn’t call it the moon. I called it the rabbit. “The rabbit’s following us!” I would gleefully announce. My mother and father would look at one another, raise a collective eyebrow and laugh a muted, uncertain laugh.
As bizarre as my terminology appeared, there was a certain logic involved — at least in my mind. To me, the moon was a form of magic. How else could you explain its ability to follow us? It was an amazing trick, like pulling a rabbit out of a hat. The illusion was so strong, that I decided that the large, white circle had to be some kind of a rabbit. So that’s what I called it.
I never explained this to my parents. I was 3. So my mom and dad laughed it off as an unusual use of language. My choice of words was weird, inexplicable — but, thank goodness, just about everything else about me made sense. The supermajority of time, they understood me.
The aforementioned event is but a footnote in my development from child to teen to adult, an amusing anecdote to recount at dinner parties. Other unusual actions of mine demanded more parental inquiry: near the end of my freshman year at Northwestern University, I informed my parents that I was considering dropping out of college, a phrase that was anathema to my education-first family (ultimately, I decided to transfer); once, as a young man, I randomly decided to drive from Wisconsin to White Sands, New Mexico. I failed to inform my parents of this decision until my feet were firmly ensconced in the albino sands of the west. Why quit school? Why a spur-of-the-moment drive to White Sands? No doubt my parents would have liked to have better understood me during those moments.
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People are inherently difficult to know; one could argue — as some writers have — complete understanding of others remains impossible. Yet, any parents worth their salt know their kids. Understanding your children — their modus operandi, if you will — makes the job easier. But no matter how well you “get” your kids, there always seem to be times when you wish you had more insight.
As a father of two boys, I find myself constantly trying to make sense of their words and actions. My 11-year-old son Alex constantly amazes me. He’s started writing two books; his vocabulary is prodigious (his word, not mine), and Alex’s level of patience with his 3-year-old brother is limitless.
Luckily for me, I can read Alex. When he approaches me with a “Hey, dad,” his intonation reveals his purpose. Sometimes “Hey, dad” means, “I want to go to the movies this weekend.” Other times, he’s just saying hello. Sometimes, when my title is said a bit too softly, he has questions about life, the universe and everything.
Still, sometimes I wish that I understood him better. Some days, I don’t know if his frustration is a product of fatigue or larger issues; every now and then I’ll catch him staring into space, and I won’t know whether he’s pensive or unhappy.
Luckily, Alex will usually tell me how he’s feeling. He’ll talk to me about local gossip that spreads across the school playground. That’s why I’m hopeful my understanding of Alex will continue into his teen years — years that are allegedly burdened by parental ignorance.
I am more concerned about my youngest.
Merret is a wonderful and engaging 3-year-old. He is funny and clever. Sometimes he will stick an orange on his head and inquire, “Do you like my hat?” When his play gets too rambunctious, and I say “ouch” after he bangs into my chest, Merret will offer an immediate defense: “I was just lovin’ on you.”
Sometimes, I am not exactly sure how his mind operates. Not long ago, Merret and I discovered three yellow cabs lined up one after the other. The boy, a fan of anything motorized, immediately pointed at the spectacle. “Taxis,” he said. “TWO taxis!” I raised my eyebrow. “Two?” I asked. The boy nodded. Then, as if to show me he had thought this through, counted it out. “One, two, ONE!” I tried once more, pointing at the cabs as I counted. “One, two, three,” I said.
The boy was unmoved. “Two,” he corrected.
His numbering system remains a mystery to me, and some of his common phrases are hard to decipher. Sometimes “Go away” means, “I’m embarrassed.” Other times, it means, “I’m angry.” It’s hard to tell. My interpretations might hold some truth, but my translations seem woefully simplistic, especially since it’s my son.
In addition to his language deficit, he has other issues. Alteration of routine can result in monumental meltdowns that include plates and utensils flying across the room. When he was two, I could call his name over and over, and he wouldn’t look up, his eyes never meeting mine.
In the fall of last year, doctors determined that Merret suffered from autism spectrum disorders. He’s high functioning; his language and eye contact have improved significantly. Still, the meltdowns.
On the worst of days, I am so exhausted from caring for him, that I am too tired to determine the cause of his implosion. He’ll be sitting on the floor kicking at me, and all I can say is, “I don’t understand, but when you calm down and sit quietly, I can help you.”
On the good days, I remain hopeful. On the good days, I’ll get a weary head on my shoulder or a look in the eye — moments that are as magical as a rabbit out of a hat. On the good days, I’m confident that, six or seven years from now, when Merret says, “Hey, dad?” I’ll know exactly what he wants to talk about.
David Weinshilboum, who — like Dave Eggers — is tired and true of heart, can be reached at email@example.com.