Those of you who have been following my stories about my autistic son in An American Tale et al probably realize that we spend a lot of time, my wife and I, trying to interpret his behavior to the world of social workers, GP's, Dentists, and the public at large. Occasionally even his long term Befrienders are baffled.
One chap, whom I've arbitrarily called Steve has been with my son for about three years now. He is the one who gets him out mountain climbing, biking, and swimming, has learned to put up with his tantrums and idiotic arguments, and generally treats him as if they were, in his word 'mates'. Just recently he decided that he would like to take my son swimming...in the ocean. This would involve an hour and a half drive to the Gower Peninsula which is the beach nearest to us, and it was not even certain my son would get out of bed in time to make the trip. The evening before the big day, I went up to my son's room and asked him what he would be doing tomorrow. It went like this:
Me: So- who's coming tomorrow?
M: What are you going to be doing with him?
S: Going to the Ocean.
M: So, you're going to get up tomorrow morning?
S: I'm not getting up....I'll get up.
M: Good, that's....
S: I'm not getting up.
M: You're not getting up.
S: I'll get up....I won't get up.
M: Whatever you want.
S: I'll get up....I won't get up....I'll get up
M: That's great! Yayyy!
S: (unable to resist) Yayyyy!
On the day, he actually did get up and had breakfast, which usually takes place around 4 or 5 in the afternoon. Before you go tsk tsk and look sympathetic, forget Autism: how many out of work young men of twenty five do you know who leap out of bed ready to confront the world at 9 in the morning? At any rate by 12:30 they were on their way. My son was wound up like a watch spring, never having been closer to the ocean than his interminable vidoes. I was not too worried about his safety; he swims like a fish and has been going to the local swimming pool with Steve for a year or more.
The day passed, and evening came, and still they had not returned. My wife began to look worried- her constant fear is that our son will flip out in public and attract the attention of the police and social services. This is no joke- a friend of ours whose son is also on the Spectrum but has a tendency toward physical violence had to fight like hell to keep him from being sectioned when his behavior was observed by a social worker. I was not worried about this possibility because I am in denial and out of touch with reality.
Finally around 6, we heard Steve's car pull up and heaved a collective sigh of relief. There was some shouting from our son and then Steve came in to report. He was, for him, in a very bad mood, and we asked him anxiously what had gone wrong. I will try to tell the story as he did.
Steve: I thought he was having a really good time. We left our stuff on the beach and we went into the water. At first he was grinning and jumping up and down in the waves, so I said, 'Watch this, it's lots of fun,' and I dove into the next big wave. When I came up he was really pissed off, and he told me I had to get out of the water!
Me: You mean he wouldn't let you swim?
St: So I went back to the beach, and there he was, grinning and having a great time, so I went back to check on our stuff. Next thing, there he is following me. So I went back into the water, and he told me I had to get out. (shakes his head) I was getting really vexed! I said, ' I want to swim too! Can't I come in?' He yelled something about I was going to leave him.'
M: So the whole time, you never got to swim with him?
St: I couldn't get near the water, even. I just had to stand there and watch him. Every time I got too far away he came out and started giving me hell again.
M: Maybe he didn't want to be told what he could do?
St: (shrugging) I don't know. I just don't know.
Obviously the whole thing had depressed Steve a great deal, so I went into our son's house and asked him straight out what he and Steve had been fighting about.
S. He wanted to leave me.
M: Steve wouldn't leave you, he's your friend.
S: He's not my friend!
I could see this was going nowhere useful so we let it drop and Steve left for home.
Later on, though, I got to thinking about the incident. Put yourself in his shoes, I told myself. Why is it alright for Steve to swim with my son in a swimming pool and not in the ocean? My Wife thought it might be because he was frightened of the ocean, but that didn't seem right. One thing I'm reasonably certain of is that my son knows the difference between reality and fantasy. Reality is unreliable and frightening, and fantasy is predictable and entertaining. So what was it about the ocean that was different from the swimming pool? They both have water, they both have other people swimming, they both....and then I had it. Walls. Swimming pools have walls. There is only so far you can go before you run into a wall. Oceans, on the other hand are virtually limitless. A person could start swimming in the ocean and never come back, could actually disappear.
You see, my son doesn't realize that we pay people to come to see him. It enrages him when they have to leave for whatever reason, it's a personal affront; they shouldn't go until he tells them they can. We have often speculated, my wife and I, on what sort of person my son would be if he were not autistic. Said speculations usually fall somewhere between Orson Wells and Attila the Hun, so perhaps the world has actually been spared.
So ask yourself this. You are out swimming with a friend. The friend dives into a wave and disappears. You look out over the horizon. There is an awful lot of ocean out there. How do you know your friend is coming back? He or she has left before when you didn't want them to. How do you know for certain that they won't just keep swimming? If you say, well that is just silly, I know they wouldn't do that, and I say, 'How do you know?' and you reply, 'Well, they just wouldn't,' - congratulations. You are neurologically normal. You are not Autistic.