“Oh NO!” Jack shrieked from where he was standing at the kitchen sink. I rushed over and saw one of Joe’s dark blue Dovetail Dental mugs in pieces from when he tried to rinse the hot chocolate out of it.
“I broke it I broke it I BROKE IT! I broke Daddy’s mug,” he yelled, holding his hands on his ears.
“Jack,” I said. “It is no big deal, really. Just relax.”
“Can we glue it?” he asked, holding the handle-less mug up.
But I told him no, it was broken for good, we would toss it in a plastic bag and throw it away.
“No! No. No. Daddy will be upset.”
I didn’t know what all of the fuss was about. We have approximately nine hundred and ten of these cobalt blue mugs, and frankly I’d like to break a few more so I have an excuse to buy the white ones I’ve been eyeing at Pottery Barn. They match my dishes better.
I promised him that Joe would absolutely not be upset, I tried to soothe him showing the rest of our Dovetail Dental mugs in the cabinet and on the counter and in the garage.
“But he LOVES them all!” he whimpered.
I couldn’t console him. He cried off and on all afternoon, calming down just long enough to announce, “But tomorrow. Tomorrow I have art.” And I agreed, yes, he did have art and art is just so much fun before heading back into the kitchen to make meatloaf for dinner.
The following afternoon he flew off the bus with a package wrapped in tissue paper.
“The mug!” he cried. “It’s here!” Once we were in the kitchen he set it down carefully and unwrapped it with some ceremony.
“With this mug. First it was for you. Now it is for Daddy.”
Together we all clustered around and admired the somewhat lumpy blue-green pottery. And right away he decided he needed to test it out for himself before giving it to Joe, and he busied himself with his hot chocolate routine.
Sitting at the counter he reviewed all of the mug’s qualities: “You can drink SOUP from it!” or “Hot chocolate tastes GOOD in it!” and, “It is safe in the DISHWASHER!”
Then, swiping at his mouth with his sleeve; “It DRIPS a little.”
“But do not tell him. Dad. I want to be it a surprise,” he commanded me with his clipped tone and unusual syntax.
As he gingerly put it into the sink, he turned to me with a twinkle in his eye. “Did you. Have you. Seen. A NOTE? On your bed.”
Leaning against the counter I vaguely remembered Joe coming to bed late the night before, and as he pulled back the covers a sheet of paper falling gently to the floor.
“Uh huh,” I told Jack. And as soon as he wandered up to the playroom to start the karaoke machine, I headed upstairs and found the piece of paper, a little crumpled from where it slid under the bed.
Doesn’t mean about the mug? I thought. What is he trying to say? But when I asked him to explain face snapped shut. “I am not talking. About this anymore.”
After dinner that evening he lingered downstairs long after the others had gone up to take their showers, watching me load the dishwasher and wipe down the counters. He spied his mug sitting in the dish rack and lifted it carefully out of the sink.
“Where? Where does Dad get his coffee mug in the morning? From the cabinet or the counter?” he asked, referring to the collection of coffee cups we keep clustered around the Keurig.
“Um,” I said, trying to remember Joe’s morning coffee habit. “Well, I think the cabinet, Jack-a-boo. Why?”
“That is where I will put this one. To surprise him. In the morning.” And carefully he rearranged the dozen or so mugs on the shelf—ones that say Number One Bowler and Lehigh Construction and Hot 98.7—to place his front and center. Satisfied, he turned without a word and hopped out of the kitchen.
For no reason at all I felt a lump in my throat. I didn’t know why. I mean, kids the world over present their parents with homemade gifts—ornaments and candle holders and picture frames—especially this time of year.
So why did this misshapen little cup affect me so much? Why did I walk over to the cabinet and open the door and stand staring at it once I was alone in my darkened kitchen?
I think this is why.
At this point one of Jack’s biggest issues related to autism is theory of mind, or the concept that other people have thoughts, ideas, or opinions that are different from his.
Let’s say, for example, that Jack really really really loves hot chocolate. He thinks and talks a lot about hot chocolate; which brand is his favorite, the best marshmallows to layer on the top, how you should always add a few ice cubes before you drink it so it will be cooled off.
And one afternoon you casually remark that you don’t really care for hot chocolate, that you had it once when you were a little girl and it burned your mouth and you’ve never liked it since.
Right away young Jack’s brain begins to short circuit in a way that suggests his head may explode. You will swear it is smoking. He starts to jump and stim and chant things like how can you not like hot chocolate I love hot chocolate hot chocolate hot chocolate I can’t believe you don’t like hot chocolate HOT CHOCOLATE!
This can go on for hours. And if his own head does not, in fact, explode—if it stays firmly attached to his neck in one round piece—he will do everything in his power to make sure yours does.
But with this mug, his rigid mind opened just a crack. He theory-ed, if you will, enough to realize that Joe might be sad to come home and find one of his mugs broken, missing a handle.
Runner up to Jack’s theory of mind is his cognitive flexibility, or mental ability to adjust thinking or attention in response to changing goals or environmental stimulus. Essentially, he doesn’t switch gears very easily.
In everyday terms it means this: if you say hey everybody let’s go see Frozen at Chunky’s at 5:45, and you get to Chunky’s Cinema at 5:15 so you are nice and early for the movie but there are still no more seats left, Jack will have a little, hmmm, how shall I say it? He will have a little trouble adjusting to the idea that we have to come back another day.
(Note: trouble can mean anything from screaming, kicking, bouncing into walls, beating his own head, and ordering unsuspecting Chunky’s employees to find seven seats right this minute.)
But with this mug, he adjusted. Obviously, the class had been working on the project for some time, because pottery is not formed and baked and glazed in a single day. And when the handle came off of Dovetail Dental, he switched his gears to replace the broken one.
I’ve often thought that Jack does not appear to experience a full range of emotions in the same way you or I might. Sure, he gets mad when he loses the Wii and sad if there isn’t a snow day when he thought there would be and happy when we all go bowling, but his spectrum disorder seems to prohibit his emotional pendulum from swinging widely across the landscape of feelings like shame and humility and empathy and amusement.
But with this mug, the pendulum swung a little wider. After the initial shock of the broken mug, he cycled through a new set of emotions: sorrow, regret, and to some degree, grief. And then, excitement, anticipation, glee—my normally transparent son kept a secret and surprised his father.
It almost makes me want to open my own pottery studio.
But maybe I don’t have to. Maybe—just maybe—this is a starting point for Jack, a chance for him to understand that other people prefer hot cider and feel the uncomfortable feeling of regret and keep giggly childhood secrets with a twinkle in his eye.
With this mug, I hope.
Passing by him at the counter this morning as he sipped his beloved hot chocolate from the blue-green pottery, I remembered his cryptic handwritten note and realized I understood it after all. Because for me, it doesn’t mean about the mug either.
It means more.
Have a beautiful Christmas, everyone.
Want to learn more about the Cariello family, five kids, and autism? Be sure to check out Carrie’s book, What Color Is Monday? How Autism Changed One Family for the Better. Now available in paperback, Kindle, and Nook on Amazon.com, Barnes and Noble, and some local bookstores.