The Mystery of Autism and a Key to Unlock It
He recognizes me. His eyes meet mine, a smile flickers, then vanishes as his eyes slide away from my gaze. A young man with a name badge that says Ronnie leads him to the car.
“He had a great day,” Ronnie says. He tightens the strap around my grandson’s car seat after coaxing him into the car. “He said ‘cherry.’”
I puzzle over this. What good is it to learn how to say cherry when you don’t say Mom or Dad or I’m hungry? Besides, he only eats bananas, Cheerios and pizza.
“We were having him identify smells,” Ronnie explains, as if sensing my cynicism. “When I held the jar with cherries to his nose, he said cherry.”
“Oh, right, that’s great.” I try to sound enthusiastic.
Ronnie, always cheerful, says, “Tell his mom he had a great day!”
I have left a few things strategically placed in the back seat of the car where my grandson can reach them: a bag of Cheerios, a glittery necklace I don’t wear anymore, a picture book and a soft foam ball. Everything must be soft or light weight, because there’s a good chance he’ll hurl anything within reach. I don’t want to be clunked in the back of the head with a golf ball or risk having a toy truck shatter the windshield.
He goes for the necklace. I glance in the rearview mirror and see him sliding it through his fingers, mesmerized by the sparkles as they catch the sun’s light. It’s a thirty-minute drive from the school to his house, so I try to keep him entertained. If he has a bad day or gets bored, he slithers from the restraint straps until he is free in the car, a dangerous distraction.
Today he’s good. When he tires of the necklace, he gazes out the window. He could be mistaken for any normal 12-year-old boy watching the backhoes and road crews that dot our trip through a multitude of construction zones and housing developments. Is he watching them, or is he somewhere else; a thousand miles away? Has he ever even noticed a backhoe? Does he know what one is?
I think of my grandson when he was four months old. “He’s going to be the charmer in the family,” I told my husband. “The gregarious one.”
At four months, he smiled and laughed as if our silly antics and baby talk were brilliant and amusing. He reached for the mobile that dangled above his head and batted it, then watched, fascinated, as it twirled and swung. “He’s so alert!”
When did the slippage begin? When did we notice a regression? When did the four-month-old disappear?
He wasn’t holding his bottle at 12 months. The pediatrician attributed it to laziness. I grasped at this explanation, preferring laziness to another, more alarming diagnosis. But he wasn’t a lazy baby. Is there any such thing? He had spoken at 12 months, until those first jubilant words slipped away into the abyss we came to know as autism. Would he repeat the word, cherry, I wondered as I thought of words spoken, hopes emerging, and hopes dashed again when words disappeared. Nothing seemed to stick. He might say Hi today and never say it again.
Yet there were times he seemed unnaturally smart. He could operate our television remotely, from another room, with his iPad. Sometimes when I looked into his eyes, beautiful and brown like his mother’s, I imagined I saw awareness trying to breech autism’s impenetrable barrier.
I’m an avid reader of books by autistic authors. Temple Grandin has written a lot of them. Despite her autism, or maybe because of it, she’s become an expert in working with animals. She has an innate ability to understand and decode their behavior, and she was featured in a BBC special called “The Woman Who Thinks Like a Cow.”
In The Reason I Jump, Naoki Higashida reveals how differently autistic people view the world. Imagine awareness and knowledge without being able to act appropriately. Higashida learned to communicate using a handmade alphabet grid, then wrote about the emotions, the thoughts, and desires so long submerged. He’s still nonverbal, but shows the reader through his writing what it’s like to be overwhelmed in a world that bombards his senses.
I search books for anything that will unlock the door to my grandson’s mind. If I could take a class to unravel this mystery; a class that would teach me to reach my grandson through the autistic barrier that separates us, I would. A class would provide me with the key. Slipping it into the lock, swinging open the door, I could enter the other world he inhabits.
How much does he know?
What is he thinking?
How can I reach him?
The class would answer my questions until, armed with knowledge, I could understand and be understood by my grandson.
I glance in the rearview mirror and catch him watching me. The blank gaze is gone and in its place is a flash of awareness, as fleeting as the landscape that rushes past us.
Suddenly and unexpectedly, my eyes brim with tears. I cry for the boy who was, the boy who might have been, and the boy who is. But just as suddenly, my heart brims with love for the boy who is; the boy who sits in my car and gazes at the world, or at the sparkling necklace in his lap.
If I could take a class, I would. But what I can do is love, and I will.