Love and Autism (#111)

Charlie was up and running before Jim and me this morning, in the happy knowledge that we would be going to “beach house.” He changed into clean pajamas on his own and dumped the wet ones into the laundry basket (one of the side effects of the Zoloft he takes is a not always dry bed overnight) and munched on “minis waffles” with Jim before the two of them took the black car to……..the Bronx. Jim needed to get some items from “Daddy’s office” and wanted to take Charlie, who made his displeasure clear.
“Go ocean. White beach house!” Charlie called out, as he ran up the steps. I had had time to get some groceries for Charlie’s school lunch, dust, plan out the week’s classes, pack the beach bag. “Yeah, he wasn’t too happy up there,” said Jim. “Nah,” I replied. “Before you know it he’ll be requesting ‘Bwonx beach house.” You know much he loves it there.”

When I got in the car, there was little room for me in the backseat. Charlie had filled it with: the blue blanket, two stuffed dogs (one quite large), a set alphabet tiles, several photos, a Barney book, and a green rabbit from my sister with the name of “Bunny.” He sat straight up in his car seat and looked intently out the window at the familiar landmarks as went down the Garden State Parkway, and kicked and stomped when we drove over the long bridge to the beach.

The eight days of rain had caused serious erosion of the sand and the graceful dunes had become sheer cliffs like the walls of a desert canyon. The water was green until very far out, and then blue–because, Jim speculated, the sand that had been on the beach was now out there and one could walk out far in shallow water. Charlie splashed in the waves and dug his hands into the sand, and ran and ran. We were prepared for his visceral sorrow to not get to stay at the beach house we had rented; Jim kept talking about it, about the good times this past summer, and we drove by with a consternated Charlie. “Fries shrimp, swlide!” he called out and clutched a photo of his long-departed Barney and laughed.
The ocean and the beach, the beach house, Barney, his four grandparents, his many therapists, Daddy’s blue blanket: These are what Charlie loves, what he feels passionately about, talks about everyday. (I’m assuming, if I might, that Jim and I make the shortlist too–Charlie mostly talks about us when we are absent, so I rely on reports from Jim and therapists and babysitters as to what he says about me “the mom.”) There has never been a question in mind as to how and how much Charlie feels–as to his capacity to have emotions. What is different about my boy who has autism is how he expresses those emotions, usually not with language, sometimes with brute physical force (face smooshes and hugs; head bonks and wild runnings up and down).

Charlie is a man of feeling, though he might seem to care as much about his rather battered red lunchbox as some might a special friend. Jim and I always wait until he is asleep to talk about any of our workdays’ tribulations as Charlie is clearly agitated by these. As we watched him on the beach, Jim mentioned an article about autism and romance he had read in the newspaper, Adolescence, Without a Roadmap by Claire Scovell LaZebnik, co-author with Lynn Kern Koegel of Overcoming Autism. LaZebnik’s son was diagnosed with autism at 2 1/2 years old. As a teenager he now has “no discernible behavioral or academic problems” but “up close it’s clearer that our son is marked and challenged, fundamentally and permanently.” He asks girls out, including one who was dating “the star athlete of the entire middle school,” and simply looks “confused” when his mother explains that she may be “out of reach.” He has pictures of Jessica Alba and Keira Keightley in his binder and surfs the Web for online pornography of “skinny girls with big breasts,” with “genuine” appreciation.

LaZebnik’s pained reaction and even anguish at the rejection of her son by these young women is more than understandable for all of us parents whose lives are wound so closely into those of our children. “Obviously I could let myself be crushed by these rejections, especially if he was,” she writes. “But so far he doesn’t seem to mind; there’s an advantage to his emotional obliviousness.” It seems to me that these attempts at dating and rejections are astonishingly typical–are part of the life of any and all American teenagers learning to play “the dating game” and trying out MySpace.

Of course LaZebnik’s son has had to go through a lot more than most children to be where he is in school and in life. But social awkwardness is a necessary evil of growing up in 21st century America. It is heartening that LaZebnik’s son indeed has the desire and interest to go on dates. As she writes, the greater pain is hers rather than her son’s; he, indeed, presents with all the emotional nuances (noting her quiet crying at the memory of her mother’s recent death) that we see in Charlie, agitated when we are angry or upset.
Our sons present with, and have every capacity for, love. They are not at all “emotionally withdrawn” or locked in a world of aloneness. They feel and feel deeply, though they tend to express this in ways different from what might be expected. But if love is an absolute and overarching attachment for some other being through thick and thin, sorrow and joy, sickness and health, there is a lot of love in Charlie and, in Jim and me, something beyond the love of every parent for their child. Our connection to Charlie is something greater and maybe this is because of autism, and maybe it is because of Charlie as Charlie.

After Charlie had eaten his “fwies shrimp” he ran off, barefoot, to the playground by the bay where we had had a pleasant dinner with our friend Hal back in August. The wind was blowing at 30 or 40 mph; Charlie stripped off his fleece jacket and ran for the slides. The sand rained on us as pebbly grit and the water was roiling and Charlie was playing. He protested a bit when Jim took him by the hand to get back in the car. A “clear drink” assuaged him and before we knew it we were going back over the bridge to the Parkway, Charlie calling out “we’ll be back beach house!” and looking big-eyed over those ocean waves.

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