Last evening I stepped into my son’s world for a little while. You see, Jake has autism and other learning disabilities. Pulling him into “our” world has been a challenge these past 13 years, more difficult for him, even, than me. But every now and again I get a glimpse of what something looks like from behind his eyes, from within his world, and I am a better person for it.
Jake loves music. He has loved it since he was very small and always fell asleep listening to it. Doctors told us that Jake wouldn’t be able to pretend in his play, but the first time he disregarded their verdict was when he took my grandmother’s fly-swatter and danced around her den pretending to play it like a rock guitar. Jake does pretend, and in his world of imagination, he fits in. He can do whatever he wants to do and be whoever he wants to be, without the anchors of expectations and measurements to hold him down. If Jake could be anything in the world right now, he would be a jammin’ guitarist in his dad’s band (and any other band) while at the same time being invisible. He generally dislikes attention from other people, except those people with whom he feels safe. I have taught (and required) him to look people in the eye and respond when they greet him, but he always looks immediately to me for my nod of recognition. He has to remember to push past his discomfort to respond to these people every single encounter.
Jake loves to pull me into his world of thought, however, and does so countless times a day. Trouble is, he is always thinking about things that are incongruent with what I am thinking about (and doing at the time) and I have to move swiftly between my world and his world. It wears on me, particularly because I’m both a deep thinker and an active doer, so to remember his train of thought while remembering my own isn’t easy. He doesn’t remind me of the topic, he just goes back to various ones without any verbal cues. We can be in the middle of math, and as he changes to a different color marking pen, he smiles up at me and says, “It’s blue…” “Yes,” I respond, trying to keep him on task. He smiles knowingly and pointedly at me. “I’m smiling at you.” I acknowledge and smile back. “I’m smiling because it’s blue… like the Takamine… the blue Takamine,” and then he gestures by strumming an invisible blue Takamine (guitar). Other times he may mention something very different, perhaps the giant bull we photographed in Tennessee (he loves cows, and especially bulls). I keep a Rolodex of “favorite subjects” rolling in my mind for Jake, but when he makes comments he expects me to recognize which subject he’s referring to. Still, when I’m trying to balance our checkbook and he makes a comment, expecting an understanding reply, it takes me a minute to sort it all out and respond with grace.
Understanding what something means to Jake is not an easy task. I often assume it means one thing, only to discover it means something entirely different. At one time he was focused on an electric drum set yet he doesn’t often play his acoustic drum set. (He has a natural talent at drumming and drums on his legs constantly, especially to music soundtracks.) Every black and gray object reminded him of this electric drum set. One Sunday afternoon he said, “I played the electric drums at church.” I nodded. He smiled knowingly at me and said, “They didn’t make any sound.” “No, they were turned off,” I replied. “I like it when they don’t make any sound.” And then understanding struck me. “That’s why you like them,” I said, “you don’t like the noise the acoustic drums make.” “Yes,” he giggled excitedly. And so I understood. Even though we have dampeners on his drums and require the boys to wear earplugs while playing them, they are very loud. Jake has always hated loud noises. The electric drums give him the ability to drum all he wants without being overwhelmed by the sound.
He has been talking (and writing reams of pages) about all these different kinds of guitars, cases, stands, drums, etc. for a long while now. He is, in fact, saving towards a new acoustic guitar. However, each time he would show me a different guitar, I’d notice the price and at times comment, “But Jake, that one costs $2,000. You’ll be 18 before you can afford that one.” And immediately he’d close that page on the internet. I thought he was changing which guitar he wanted. But I was wrong.
Last night as I sat with him, he took me into the “cases” category and we looked at page after page of guitar cases. He would pause and study certain ones, enlarging the photo so we could really see it. He knows all the brands, loves the details of various ones, and notices things I’d never notice. I tried to be very interested. Then he took me into the “straps” category. Would you believe there were 523 options? I knew that in the store they only keep a few in stock, so as Jake took me through his favorite straps I began to understand. There is this wonderful world of beautiful, colorful, textured amazing guitar straps. I’d have never guessed it but once I saw it through his eyes, I was mesmerized. You see, I’m always noticing the price on the items he admires and he never does. I’ve been thinking about how impossible it will be to open that world to him. But Jake already exists in and enjoys that world. Jake’s view is that of possibility. It’s like being in Charlie’s Chocolate Factory: there are all these amazing wonderful things that you cannot find easily in the “real” world, yet you can go there and dream. Jake does this through the website and the catalogs. It isn’t that he’s thinking they’ll all be his; he’s thinking of how wonderful that world is and how much he enjoys moving around in it. It’s a world of possibilities, real things that are out there, but not here yet. And he wanted me to enter that world with him. I’ve been the one to push him the hardest to learn, to try and try again despite repeated failures, pushed him to do things when he thought he couldn’t. Haven’t I driven him to believe in what might be possible by pushing through the barriers in his path? Haven’t I been the one to expect more of him than he wanted to give, just because I believed it might be possible? Now he’s brought me into a world where he thinks exactly like that, about what is possible, despite the barriers in his path, into this world of amazing choices and options, colors and textures. My son Jake has invited me into his world of possibilities, the world where limits and requirements are set aside and the possibilities remain unencumbered by practicality. It is a beautiful world.
It’s a world I once knew well. When I was a child, and even a young adult, I spent a lot of time in that world, dreaming of what might one day be possible. I didn’t try to figure out how all of it could occur, just that it might. I didn’t demand anything from that world and I didn’t expect it to fully take me in; but it was a friend nonetheless because it allowed my dreams to be possible. I’ve missed that world and yet my son enjoys it happily. Today, he tells me, we will visit the world of drum sticks, and maybe, just maybe, the world of congos. I can’t wait.