J was recently diagnosed with high-functioning autism (Aspergers). We always knew he had a different kind of mind. From day one, he was a very fussy baby and always looked a bit nervous. When my wife signed up for a “mommy and me” class at age one, he already was avoiding social interaction with other kids and wouldn’t participate in the activities.
He always had trouble entertaining himself. Other parents would say things like, “I just put my baby down on the floor with his toys and he plays while I get dinner ready.” Never so with him. He’d always need us to stimulate him. Or on the contrary, he’d have trouble settling down. In short, he was always different–and often frustratingly so.
Don’t get me wrong. There are plenty of wonderful things about him. He’s very bright and has a photographic memory. He’s sensitive. And sometimes he’s able to synthesize stories and life-lessons in a way many adults can’t. But still, as he gets older, we notice him falling socially well behind his peers. Most disturbing is his increasing anxiety, disinterest in making friends and emotional distance from others.
Over the years, we sent him to several psychologists. One of them totally missed the diagnosis and had us do sticker charts. This didn’t work. The problem was that he also has some sensory issues (this probably comes along with autism). Instead of liking stickers, the sight of them make him nauseous. Another psychologist had no idea what was wrong with him, but he definitely thought something was wrong. He thought he had ADHD or some kind of language processing disorder. Not surprisingly he wanted to drug him. It was about this time that we realized he must have Aspergers. It was the only diagnosis that made sense.
Luckily we live in an area with several autism experts. The first thing we learned after bringing him to the right person, is how the autistic mind differs from the norm. Watching the movie Temple Grandin also helped us internalize how he must see the world.
Though as I mentioned we always knew he was different, it wasn’t until we had our first play session with J’s therapist that we realized how different he really was. Most parents take for granted that their child can play. It’s such a simple and seemingly natural thing for a child to do. When we had our intake session, the therapist took us into a playroom, with my wife, and J’s two younger brothers, aged one and six. The room was full of toys. Our 6 year old got right to work taking trucks and blocks off the shelf, making up games etc. The games, though involving objects, always had human stories. The therapist tried to get J to play with his younger brother. J just stood there staring, having no idea what to do.
Finally the therapist got J to build with some large foam blocks. Then his baby brother crawled a few feet from my wife, and J built a wall between the baby and my wife with the blocks. The baby started crying because he found himself separated from his mother. The therapist asked J why he thought the baby might be crying. J had no idea why and continued building the wall higher and higher. As we left, our middle son asked when we could go back so he could play more and gave the baby a hug, asking him if he had a good time. Different minds, indeed.
There’s no sugar-coating J’s condition. While he’s smart and relatively functional, Aspergers is a “disorder” that puts him at a lot of disadvantages. We are social beings, who generally thrive with others and contribute more to society as a whole than as an individual. But, just like organs in the body, we all have a unique place in the broader scheme. Perhaps we deviate from the norm for a reason. Maybe our “sicknesses” put the Human Race at an advantage by providing diversity that proves useful under certain circumstances.
Maybe J will improve, and someday he’ll have friends and understand social reciprocity. Or he’ll spend the resources others use in social interactions for ends that benefit us all. Already he’s graced us with his gentle and profund thoughts that probably come about because he has all the time in the world to be himself.