Sometimes when people learn my son Jack has autism, they ask if he is high functioning. They sort of stammer and shuffle their feet a little, as though they are embarrassed.
The question doesn’t bother me, not in the least. It’s a good question, really. I just don’t have a simple answer.
If you search the ever-profound, all-knowing Internet for the definition of high functioning autism, you get a variety of answers.
High functioning autism means an IQ of seventy or more.
It means Asperger’s Syndrome.
A larger risk of anxiety, and depression.
Devoted to routine and order.
Some are overwhelmed by social situations and talk too loudly.
Other shut down, and retreat.
Some do well in school, others do not.
Some can hold a job, others cannot.
So which is he—a some or an other?
Well, I guess he’s both.
He knows within seconds if someone is sincere. I have no idea how. He can tell if a person wants to talk to him for autism’s sake, or for Jack’s sake. There is a difference, you see.
Some want to fake-talk with him so they can go home and sit at the dinner table and crow over green beans about how they talked to a nice boy who had autism and it was all very good, really.
Others lean close, and hear what he has to offer.
It takes exactly one second for him to tell the difference. If it’s the green bean scenario, he just turns around, and walks in the other direction. If it’s the other way, he bends down close. He whispers his secrets.
When I see this in action, I am mesmerized. It’s like watching the ocean meet the shore and say listen, buddy. I know how many grains of sand you have in your soul.
Are you a some, or an other? Either way, he will know.
Is my son high functioning?
He is verbal.
He can cook.
He is learning in school.
He manages his own personal hygiene.
He cleans his glasses a dozen times a day. He uses these special wipes we bought on Amazon, and watching him carefully unwrap the square and remove the cloth makes me want to cry. I cannot tell you why.
Maybe because like with everything else, autism got its sticky little fingers on what we could salvage, and smudged it so it’s barely recognizable.
Yes, maybe that’s it.
I mean, he can cook—pretty well, in fact—but if the fire alarm went off or the water boiled over, he would stand rooted to one spot like a tree, cover his ears, and scream.
He’s doing okay in school because he goes to a small program one town over and he has a lot of what we call scaffolding in place to help him succeed—special equipment and very small class sizes and audio books.
He has a job.
No, wait. He has two jobs.
He loves it.
He loves to work so much, in fact, that he keeps track on a calendar of how long it’s been since he could go. Then he reports it to me, and once again I see those sticky fingers smudging up another thing my son loves.
He hasn’t worked in almost two months because we are in the middle of a pandemic.
Or perhaps near the end of a pandemic.
It depends on who you talk to, really.
We wander around thickly all day, desperately lonely, asking each other to play badminton or charades or work on another puzzle. At the same time, we long to be alone for one single second.
Every once in a while we can coax Jack to the table for a puzzle, but he refuses to play badminton.
He’s never liked sports, you see.
Yet all of a sudden he’s very interested in movies about sports—Remember the Titans, Miracle, Cool Runnings.
After dinner we take up our places on the couch, and he makes a big bowl of popcorn. For the first time in as long as I can remember, he sits through the entire movie with us. At the end, when the score is close and the crowds are cheering, he sits up straight and rubs his hands together, over and over again, like he is trying to warm them at a campfire.
We look forward to it all day. We start volleying around that evening’s movie choice over lunch, and Jack announces the final selection by mid-afternoon.
Tonight. For us will be. Field of Dreams.
This is his pandemic offering—buttery fingertips and the promise of a good comeback story.
I guess you could say it keeps us functioning.
I want life to return to normal.
I don’t know.
Part of me feels like I will look back on this time as special, and precious.
Maybe it is all of these things.
Maybe you can be special and precious and scary and tiresome all at the same time.
When it comes to autism, there is no such thing as a simple day, or an easy explanation.
There is no such thing as normal.
Asperger’s, high functioning, severe, somewhere on the spectrum. In the end, it doesn’t really matter.
Please, make room for him.
I think he can teach us something.
We never had his IQ tested. I guess we never saw the point. We already knew he was smarter than the rest of us.