by John Robert Hall, author of “Am I Still Autistic?: How a Low-Functioning,
Slightly Retarded Toddler Became CEO of a Multi-Million Dollar National Corporation.
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published by Opportunities In Education, LLC; ebook, $9.95, hardcover, $17.95
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Imagine you are in the kind of calm, tranquil, altered-consciousness state people aspire to when they meditate.
Imagine you feel no tension or stress whatsoever, neither in mind, body, or spirit. Your entire psyche is enveloped in peace and comfort. Nothing bothers you.
Outside noises are meaningless. Time is meaningless. You move through life with complete serenity, utterly unperturbed by whatever beings and sounds exist around you.
Here is the good news: if your son or daughter is autistic, that is where they live, in that beautiful, peaceful, totally comfortable world. Nothing bothers them; nothing causes them pain or disrupts their contentment—until you or someone else intrudes on their private space.
My son lives there. Even when he is pushed or pulled out of his altered state of consciousness, he avoids connecting with me, my wife, his sister, and everyone else. Unless someone interacts with him, is in his face every moment, he retreats into his private world where he is perfectly happy, completely safe, and thoroughly comfortable.
I know exactly how he feels.
I used to live there, too.
My memories of being autistic are quite lucid. I did not cognitively realize I was different, of course, but I clearly remember having that sense of peace and contentment. Incessantly messing with pots and pans or flushing the toilet was comforting. I felt like a happy, healthy, normal child.
If you asked me today, "How would you like to flip a light switch on and off for the next three hours?" I would consider it the most monotonous torture anyone could imagine. But then? It was soothing. I would do it until someone physically moved me from the switch, away from being able to reconnect with the switch. It is what I did. You could yell at me for five minutes—right in my face, even right in my ear—and I would not respond. Yes, I would hear what you said, but your words, your tone, your expectation of a reaction were meaningless to me. Nothing penetrated the shield protecting my private world. I lived in an entirely different albeit visible dimension. All babies initially exist in their own worlds, of course, but mine, like my son's, never expanded. I remained closeted in my personal space: content, peaceful, comfortable. The ultimate Alpha high.
Today I can easily recognize the differences between normal children and the kind of toddler I was. All I have to do is watch my own son and daughter. I now understand, for example, that most children have inherently short attention spans. My daughter gets bored playing with the same toy after just a little while and comes to her mom, dad, or grandmother looking for her next amusement.
I possessed no sense of time passage whatsoever. And I never went to my mother looking for anything. Ever.
My daughter notices when my wife is happy or angry with her. Lia can sense when it is a good time to ask for something and when it is time to stop being stubborn and simply obey. If she wants attention, she runs to someone for a hug, tugs on a pant leg, or pouts, cries and makes demands. Standard kid stuff.
My son never knows when anyone else is happy or upset. The concept of other people's emotions does not exist in his world. He hears me speak to him but does not respond. I know just what he is feeling when that happens: nothing. He is only barely, peripherally aware that another person is in front of him unless I reach out and pull him to me. He can watch the water swirl down a shower drain for 20 minutes in a state of perfect bliss while I sit by, feeling helpless and depressed. He does not get bored, he does not call for me to, "Look, look, Daddy! Look!" At age four, when other boys whoop through the house leaving untold destruction in their wake, he plays with his trains for long periods of time, lining them up in the repetitive-ritualistic manner known as "stemming."
While my daughter comes over to say, "Hi Daddy!" and just hang out with me, my son stands in front of the television and watches whatever is on the screen until someone turns it off or moves him away.
My daughter will ask, beg, plead, cry, or throw a tantrum to get her way. My son, passive and compliant, will communicate basic needs ("Juice. Milk.") but is otherwise disconnected from getting his way. He has no "way." Totally withdrawn from engagement, he does not crave being held or sung to or even noticed.
Those things simply do not exist in his world, just as they did not exist in mine.
I can only suspect how my mother felt when I was diagnosed as severely autistic, but I certainly know I did not want to hear those words applied to my son, and avoided accepting them as long as I could. Luckily, we already knew he was academically gifted; my initial diagnosis included slight retardation. And, unlike my son, my prognosis was not good. I was low functioning. The best my parents could expect for me was decades of therapy, which could possibly—but not necessarily—lead to a menial job in the distant future. I would need special assistance my entire life. The "American Dream" of my going to regular school, making friends, attending college, and having a family of my own was not in the cards for me.
Sometimes even experts are remarkably wrong.
There are no physical tests for autism, no exact diagnoses and no sure-fire cures. Every child is different, and no two births, environments or developmental circumstances can possibly be identical. Nevertheless, those early intervention experts who so confidently predicted my bleak future rocked back on their heels with astonishment at how much my mother and I flipped that prognosis on its ear. Yes, it took decades of hard work and skin thickening, but from the moment my mother thrust me into the real world unprotected by therapists and protocols, my life veered off their forecasted road for good. In very little time I discovered I actually liked people and wanted friends—and for someone as fiercely determined to remain disconnected in his own private world as I was, that alone was a complete 180° reversal.
Learning how to first get along, and then become friends with other people was arduous to say the least; at times it was almost unbearably onerous. Over the course of years, I acted out, acted obnoxious, and acted confident when I was scared to death. For my misguided efforts I was bullied, ostracized, and beaten up. But I listened and watched and experimented and tried until, eventually, I became so alert to other people's emotional, mental, and social cues that noticing and responding to them has now become almost second nature.
Was it worth all the struggle and sorrow, the backsliding and plunging forward, the emotional push-push-push?
I write these words as a 3s-year-old, fully integrated adult who has earned a bachelor's degree, a Master's degree, and is now sitting for his doctorate. I easily make friends and retain healthy relationships. I am CEO of a 13-year-old national company that I helped found and which continues to grow, thanks in no small part to my social skills and outgoing personality.
Do I still have to focus to successfully manage some interactions that other people take for granted? Yes. Am I still working through lingering issues stemming from my autistic childhood? Sure—but none I cannot overcome. And that encompasses both the salient point and the primary motivation for this book. Succinctly put: the impossible is possible. Autism can be overcome. If I can do it, my child can, too.
And so can yours.
For more information contact:
Lisa Baker / The Blaine Group / 310.360.1499 / www.blainegroupinc.com