My name is Carrie.
I have five kids, and my second son is diagnosed with autism. He is fifteen. His name is Jack.
It’s easy to think of Jack in terms of his deficiencies, or challenges.
He struggles with anxiety.
Over time, however, I’ve stared to appreciate all the ways in which my son is smarter than me.
#1. When he was four years old, he could start the car, operate the coffee machine, and figure out how to get the cookies from the top cabinet.
I mean, we didn’t teach him this stuff. It’s not like we sat down after nap time and explained how to insert a key into the ignition, or measure out coffee grounds. We didn’t keep a ladder handy in the kitchen.
He watched us when we didn’t even know it, and he took in all the information, and he applied it when no one was looking. And for a child diagnosed with autism with little working memory, well, I would say this is pretty impressive.
#2. He doesn’t believe in social constructs.
A social construct is something that doesn’t exist in objective reality, but rather as a result of human interaction. In other words, it exists because humans agree that it exists—it is the result of so many shared experiences.
For example, we answer the telephone by saying hello.
We shake hands when we greet one another.
We don’t scream f*#$ at the top of our lungs if we drop a potato on our toe in the grocery store.
Jack doesn’t care about any of this.
When he answers the phone, he shouts what. And if you are, let’s say, taken aback by his abruptness and you don’t respond quickly enough, he’ll just hang up on you.
He hates to shake hands, and his typical greeting might involve asking if you prefer Pepsi or Coke.
He would like to know who decided the bad words. You know, like who said f%$# is a swear, but words like hamburger, or suicide, are fine in normal conversation.
I guess what I am trying to say is, he doesn’t buy into the prescribed set of norms. He sees the world as a clean slate—open for interpretation. And if you ask me this is kind of beautiful.
#3. He is Zen.
Now, were you to see my son, Zen might be the last thing that comes to mind.
He is in constant motion. He hops and jumps. He rubs his hands together. He talks to himself.
Zen is described as the art of doing one thing, at one time. For example, if you are drinking a glass of water, you think about nothing other than the glass of water in your hand, and the cool sensation in your mouth.
You might notice the beads of condensation on the surface, or the way the glass feels against your fingertips.
You hear the way the ice clinks, and you
You don’t wonder if you should have had juice instead.
You don’t think about all the phone calls you need to return, or how the waistband of your pants feels too tight, or whether or not you should practice more yoga.
Your mind is fully in this moment—just you, a glass, and some water.
I am not Zen. In fact, you might say I am the opposite of Zen. Even as I type the word Zen on my laptop, I am thinking about what to make for dinner and I am watching the dog out of the window and wondering if I really need new boots.
But throughout the day, Jack works on exactly one thing at one time. He cannot start something new until he finishes with his first task.
This includes, but is not limited to: brushing his teeth, eating a meal, taking out the garbage, organizing DVD’s, frying an egg.
This used to annoy me. At times, it still does. I’d watch him slowly, carefully spooning the last of his cereal into his mouth with a detached serene while the bus made its way up the driveway, and I would feel a pinch of irritation.
Zen, I’d whisper to myself. Zen.
For me, these three letters are powerful—a reminder to slow down, to focus on one thing, and just enjoy the cereal. The bus will wait a second or two.
#4. He can match right the lid to a Tupperware container.
The other day I was watching Jack pack his lunch. He selected a plastic container from the drawer—which is always a mess, if I’m being honest—and then he hesitated. He took a lid from the willy-nilly stack, and he tried it on the container to make sure it fit.
See, he did this before he put his food in the Tupperware. He didn’t wait until it was brimming and then tried to smash the lid on and it didn’t fit but now it was dirty anyway, the way I always do.
I don’t really know what this says about him or his autism, but it kind of amazed me.
#5. He chooses his words.
Language does not come easily for my son. Letters and words are like too many needles in a haystack, and he has to painfully search through all the straw and find what he is trying to say.
This means he doesn’t have any time for small talk. He has no space for the banal exchange. He wants to know if your mother is still alive, and what you think about the election, and whether or not jellybeans count as a fruit.
Talk to him.
Give him the space he needs to find the words, and it might well be the best conversation you’ve ever had in your life.
Perhaps these seem trivial—the Tupperware and the handshake and all that. But I can’t help but think this boy of mine is on to something.
What if we all slowed down a little, and did exactly one thing at one time?
What if we moved past the usual polite, superficial conversation, and connected with one another over things that really matter?
What if we discarded the antiquated customs to which we have become accustomed, and began anew?
Who would we be?
Who can we be?