For other writeups about my son, see An American Story Growing up with Autism and A trip to the Dentist
Something my son and I do often on Saturdays is to take a walk. This being rural Wales, it does not involve walking down to the ice cream store, but rather an hour long slog beginning across the river at the edge of our field, up a series of narrow paths mostly consisting of liquid mud due to the wet weather, across a wire stock fence pinned down by a giant larch pine, then up a couple more hills to the top, where in good weather one can see the Brecon Beacons on the horizon.
My son is 24 and is severely Autistic. He is also six feet of vigorous and athletic manhood, and a walk in the woods with him is rather like training for the SAS. I go through the connecting door into his house which adjoins ours, climb the stairs and find His Majesty still in bed. The morning dialogue goes something like this:
Me: Hey, the dog and I are going for a walk, want to come along?
Son: I'm not going for a walk with you!
M: Ok then, I guess we'll go by ourselves.
S; I'll go with you
M: No, that's all right, you stay in bed.
S: (shouting) I'm not staying in bed!
M: But you don't want to go for a walk.
S: I want to go for a walk with you!
M: OK, we'll meet you in the field. (Exit)
You see, my son thought it was too much like it was me telling him what to do- it has to sound as though it is his idea. This may sound bizarre, but when your personal choices are as limited as his, deciding something for yourself becomes of paramount importance.
Out we go, me and the dog, to walk around our six acre field and wait for my son, who has to get dressed, put on his jacket and cap, adjust his yellow industrial ear protectors ( most Autists are very sensitive to noise) shove his size elevens into wellie boots and run out the door to get his walking stick. This is a special walking stick that I made for him out of a hazel sapling. What's special about it? He only takes it for our Saturday walks, because I made it for him so he would have one like mine. Old age has brought me to the three legged stage of life but my son needs one like a stripper needs long johns.
By now our three sheep are convinced that it's treat time, because what else would I be doing out in the field? They crowd around us, which used to be cute when they were small and cuddly but now being full grown it gets a little difficult to walk, so we push them aside as my son laughs like a drain, and leave them at the gate, baa-ing plaintively.
The weather is typical for Wales in the winter- windy and threatening rain. We just about make it across the ford; the river is clear but nearly to our boot tops. When it runs brown there's nothing to do but go up stream to the hump back bridge which is a pain. We squelch through the foliage on the bank and start uphill , and now begins my penance.
The first few times we did this route I made the mistake of trying to keep up, macho fool that I am, and nearly got apoplexy. My son is taller, with longer legs, and about half a century younger. Now I struggle up at my own pace, while my son and the dog wait every hundred yards or so with identical expressions of patient concern. The problem with this is no rest stops, because as soon as I get within view they both start off again.
Once we get above the trees to the pasture land at the top, the wind is more assertive, with a little rain mixed in. There is a herd of horses grazing, Welsh hill ponies, and the head mare comes over to check us out. I hold out my fist so she can smell my knuckles, which you do to avoid being bitten in case the horse thinks there should have been an apple there, and I tell my son to do the same explaining why. Bad idea. He immediately states that he likes his fingers being bitten and I wisely move off and leave him to sort things out with the mare. Of course he immediately takes the lead again and we move off.
Now we come to the final hill and my son and the dog are waiting for me at the gate at the bottom. This is the only place my son will allow me to take a breather, for reasons which are as mysterious as they are arbitrary. Never mind, I can use the break by now. The wind is really strong, and I pull up the hood on my jacket and fasten the tie. I ask my son if he wants his hood up as well and he refuses. Off we go again, and now the terrain is really steep, but every time I stop my son turns around and waves his stick to urge me on.
Finally we are at the summit. Below the hills fall away, valley after valley fading away into the mist. The wind is still strong but fortunately I can put my back to it, and the rain is less. High overhead, invisible in the clouds, a kite calls with one piercing high pitched note which is borne away on the wind. My son stands looking off into the distance where the mountains would be if it were clear and a few feet away is my place. It is always the same, rain or shine, even today when we can barely stand upright; we will remain looking out over the hills to the invisible mountains for what seems a very long time. It is a ritual, if you like, a serious one for my son. He never speaks but I think I know what is in his mind.
Do you know the most recent version of the movie 'King Kong'? There is an iconic scene near the beginning which is reprised at the end, where Kong and Anne, the heroine, sit together looking out at the sunset – primeval mountains in the beginning, the man-made mountains of Manhattan seen from the top of the Empire State building in the end. There they sit, united by a strange wordless understanding, for the woman puts her fist on her chest and murmurs, 'Beautiful,' the word and the sign together. After a moment the giant ape copies her, putting his massive fist to his own chest. My son wore out three copies of the DVD, watching that same scene over and over, always the same scene.
Yes, I know, one of the signs of Autism is repetitive behaviour. Only – is it so strange that a young man might dream of someday finding someone like Anne Darrow in the movie, a woman who can see past his locked-in exterior and offer him love and understanding? Is it possible that a young man might stand on a hill top in Wales and dream of that happening some day?
The dog waits patiently. He and I are only spectators here and I think he understands this. Finally my son comes out of his revery and announces, 'Let's go now,' and he is off, bounding with the dog at his heels as if he were wearing seven league Wellington boots. More slowly I follow, picking my way down the slope, the rain stinging my face. My trousers are wet and I know my knees will ache later, and I know also what my wife will say when the dog and I come dripping into the kitchen and slump down by the wood stove.
'It's a Mitzvah,' she will say, the Hebrew word that means a righteous or charitable deed, and I will reply from my small store of Yiddish, 'Fun dayn moyl in Gots oyern,'- 'From your mouth to God's ear.'