(For other writings about my son see under Growing up with Autism )
Those of you who are old enough to remember the original Star Trek series on TV- or are hooked on the Nostalgia of the sixties- may remember the episode where Kirk has to talk a mutated robot probe out of destroying all of the crew of the Enterprise on the grounds that as organic beings they are imperfect. I don't remember the exact argument he used but I will never forget the image of the poor robot saying 'error- Error- ERROR' in an increasingly hysterical and rising mechanical voice, while its lights flashed more and more rapidly and smoke began to come out of its metal carapace.
I had just chainsawed a fallen tree trunk into blocks and piled them on the riverbank. The next step would be to get them on the other side of the paddock gate so that they could be wheelbarrowed up to the wood store to be split into firewood. It was a hot day and I was not looking forward to the task when my son and Steve, his male Befriender, arrived. They were scheduled to go swimming but my son was being his usual contrary self and refusing to get his swim trunks, so as a compromise they had come down to the river. Aha, thinks I, an opportunity to pull a Tom Sawyer on my strapping six foot son.
Me: Boy, these logs sure are heavy. I can hardly lift them, but I suppose I'll have to put them in the wheelbarrow myself.
Son: I'll help you/I won't help you
Me: Of course not! They're much too heavy for you.
Son: (trying hard but unable to resist the challenge) I can pick them up/I won't pick them up
Me: Of course, much too heavy as I said.
In less time than it takes to tell it the wheelbarrow was loaded high with half a dozen of the things, each a little larger than an old fashioned cookie tin. Congratulating myself on my cleverness I took hold of the wheelbarrow handles and pretended to be unable to shift it.
Me: Oof! It's too heavy for me.
Steve: (getting into the spirit) Nope, I can't do it either
Son: I'll push it!
Which he proceeded to do. All the way to the paddock gate, and then he started up the path to the wood store, another 200 meters mostly uphill.
Me: Wait! You don't have to go all the way up there, just dump it by the gate here.
Son: I'm going to the Green Barn! (which as he knew very well was where the wood store is)
This he proceeded to do. Steve and I looked at each other and shrugged. He won't do that twice, we agreed. Long moments passed and no sign of my son and the wheelbarrow. Finally he came stumping back and proceeded to pile on another load. I was beginning to feel like Mickey in the 'Sorcerer's Apprentice' sequence from 'Fantasia'
Me: Look, you don't have to go all the way up there, just drop it here by the gate.
Son: I want to go up there.
Me: But you don't have to. I only want the logs the other side of the gate so the sheep don't get through.
Son: (roaring) I want the sheep to get through!
Me: (very unwisely) Fine! Then they can fall in the river and get drowned!
Son: (even louder) I want them to drown!
Me:(desperately) Look, just drop the wood over here!
Off he went. For about ten paces, then he turned left, and left again. Good, I thought, he's got the idea. Two more paces and he made another series of left turns through the long grass of the pasture which was beginning to resemble a series of crop circles by Escher. Back and forth he marched like a demented squad on parade maneuvers for about a quarter of an hour. At one point I thought I could joke him out of it and followed behind him singing ' Walking my Barrow' to the tune of Waltzing Matilda, and was grimly ignored. Left,ten paces then left again, on and on.
Finally when I was beginning to get seriously worried he returned, stopped, dumped his load by the gate, and announced it was time to go swimming. Off they went, and I finished the transfer myself, musing the while. I gradually realized that by giving him a choice to alter an established routine -ie, wood-goes-to-the-wood-store, I was creating what was for my son an insoluble dilemma. If there was more than one option there might be an infinite number, and how was he supposed to choose among them? It wasn't lack of intelligence, just a brain programmed to perform only logical functions,with no room for polite ambiguity. Steve was also a fan of Star Trek and when I had muttered under my breath 'Error..error' he had understood immediately.
You may remember if you have been following this series that my Autistic son has been suffering from weight loss recently. One evening I had what seemed to me to be a brilliant inspiration. I grabbed my wife's hand held mixer and invaded my son's kitchen at about the time he was finishing dinner. The young farming lass who is his favorite among the Befrienders was setting out some cookies they had made together, and the dialogue went something like this:
Me: Hey, how about a milkshake!
Son:(very rapidly) I don't want a milkshake/I want a milkshake
Me: Well watch- I'll take some ice cream out of the freezer, OK? Now I'll take some milk from the fridge, put it in a glass and add the ice cream to it.
Son: (looking rather like a rabbit caught in the headlights) OK....
Me: Now we just plug in the mixer and push this button....there! Your very own milkshake!
I thought my son was overwhelmed with appreciation of my cleverness, for he just sat staring at the foaming glass of gunge.
Befriender: What do you say to Dad?
Son: (roaring) I'm not going to say thank you!
I took this as my cue to exit the scene and let the Befreinder get on with calming him down; it is her job, after all, I told myself. Some moments later after what sounded a lot like a battle between a maddened bull and a field mouse, the Befriender emerged red faced, wiping her eyes. I was immediately contrite and asked her to sit down while I made some tea.
She shook her head and dropped down on a kitchen chair, where I could now see they had been tears of laughter.
Me: What's the matter? Didn't he like the milkshake?
B: You don't understand. Milk goes in the glass and you drink it, and ice cream goes in a bowl and you eat it with a spoon. First he poured some out into a bowl and then he tried to use a spoon to eat it , and when that didn't work he just sat there staring at the glass getting madder and madder...and I didn't want to let him see me laughing at him so I had to come in here...oh,dear...
And she was off again.