The first time it happened, he was sitting in the kitchen behind me.
I was at the counter cutting vegetables for dinner when my older son said, "When God talked to me earlier today, before I went to school…"
That’s how he spoke as a child. He was only 11, but his diction was formal, biblical almost, and he habitually attached clauses to make his points more precise. If he heard from God, it would be important to know not only that it was today and that it was early but also that it had occurred before school.
I turned. "What did he say?" I asked. But Andrew was already gone, concentrating on something midair, eyes soft behind the thick lenses of his glasses. "Sweetheart?" Then I fell silent, too, forcing myself not to prod. Andrew has autism, and I’d learned that repeating a question only increased the amount of time he needed for mental processing. Patience — or even just the appearance of it — was the only way to get through.
By the time Andrew emerged from his reverie and began humming again, wagging his pencil back and forth above a rumpled page of history homework, dusk was settling in the room. The air outside had turned dim and coffee-colored. I switched on the overhead light.
"What did he say?" I repeated.
"What did he say?" Andrew muttered, as if this were a puzzle.
I grew itchy waiting this time, which may have had something to do with the light. The gloaming of evening: It was dangerous for me. My mind slowed and things tended to happen or be said before I’d thought them through.
"He said …" — I barely breathed for fear of interrupting my son’s fragile train of thought — "no."
The word — though small and softly spoken — rang like a bell, echoing through the gloom. No, no, no.
I waited for it to finish before asking, "No what?"
Andrew shrugged, looking for a moment like any boy. "Just no. Because I knew the rest of what he meant."
He made a hesitant mark on the sheet in front of him but erased it immediately. Maybe God could help you with your homework, I almost said, but I didn’t because Andrew wouldn’t find it funny. Maybe he could explain a few things to me.This was not so much a joke, because there were things I really wanted to know, like why my son’s thought process seemed tangled one moment and profound the next, and why my mostly devoted husband sometimes disappeared on a drinking spree, and what the point of life was anyway.
Then I watched as Andrew wrote an answer on his history sheet. Then another, and a third. I hovered over his shoulder, looking down. France, 26, Petroleum and Coal. I had no idea if these were correct, but they were there on the paper, legible.
I looked at Andrew’s face. But his eyes were closed, as if he were still listening. Classic autism is a disorder of divisions. There is no sense of "I" and "you" as being whole and separate in the world. Either that, or there is a lack of understanding that "I" and "you" are even of the same species, any more similar to each other than, say, a human being and a walrus. I’ve never understood exactly which it is.
The "test" for autism — back when my son was diagnosed, in 1991 — was simple. A child suspected of being autistic would be placed behind a one-way mirror to watch this scene: A little girl in the neighboring room was given a toy and told to put it in one of three baskets. Then she was taken out for a snack. While she was gone (but the test subject still watching) someone entered the room and switched the toy from one basket to another. This question then was posed to the witness: When she returns, where will the girl look first for her toy? A "normal" child would point to the basket where the girl had stowed the item. But an autistic one would choose the basket to which it was transferred after she left, not understanding that even though he knew it had been moved, she did not.
In other words, to know or remember or feel something as an autistic person is not a subjective experience. It is, rather, a matter of fact.
I cannot recall if Andrew ever had the hidden toy test. But throughout his childhood there were a series of meetings, odd questions, games, expert heads nodding. It was clear: My son was, in their lexicon, mind blind — unable to process the "otherness" of people … or the "peopleness" of others. Add to this the evidence that he had problems with both perspective and pronouns when he started speaking again. "The boy is cold," Andrew might say, when he himself was shivering. "You smell," he once told me, even as he was pointing to his baby brother whose diaper needed to be changed.
By the time he’d reached adolescence, most of these problems were gone. Andrew had been through speech therapy, where he was trained in pronominal relationships — I, you, he — and I’d spent several years pointing out to him that there were also things he knew that the rest of us didn’t. Square roots, exact latitudes and longitudes, his private thoughts. Tentatively, Andrew began locating himself in the universe, figuring out where he left off and everything else began.
Then this God thing cropped up — an echo, I decided, of all the old problems. Whereas Andrew had learned to differentiate his thoughts from mine or his teacher’s, he didn’t seem to understand where he ended and God began, or which of the two was speaking to the other.
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