Something inexplicable happened to me as a boy. On the way to school one morning, I crashed my bike into a parked car.
Actually, this happened twice.
The first time I smashed my face against the car’s outside mirror. My new braces sliced up my mouth pretty good, leading to my first root canal. The second time I was jolted off my ten-speed and landed on the front seat of an MG convertible—without a scratch!
An explanation eluded my concerned parents. Did I momentarily lose consciousness? Was I daydreaming? (It wouldn’t have been the first time.) Or am I simply not a morning person. At 6:30 a.m., who can begin to form a sentence much less operate a moving vehicle. At least truck drivers have their coffee and talk radio to prop them up. What did I have – Cheerios? My mother, however, was convinced that something more serious was wrong with me. But in the end, nothing came of it.
I mention this now because as I sit here in my backyard, scribbling down my thoughts, I also have my eyes on Ben, my six-year-old, and his curly-haired brother, Ryan, who is four. It’s a lazy summer morning in San Diego and my boys will be staying with me the next several days. A group of aged eucalyptus trees stand like towers looming over us against the backdrop of a blue, cloudless sky.
Ben is in constant motion, running around aimlessly with his object for the day – a straw from Starbucks that he’s using to slap his hand. He does so repeatedly – tap, tap, tap; you can even make out a rhythm to it. Like many of us, he so desperately wants to feel something. In moments of intense anxiety, slapping an object may provide him with emotional comfort.
Ben runs and runs and runs some more, suddenly stopping cold in his tracks. He is still as a kite. A slight smile forms on his face as he pauses to receive the morning sun. This period of introspection or reflection – or “zoning out” if you prefer – lasts several seconds. Meanwhile, Ryan notices a lizard scurrying about; his big blue eyes nearly pop out of their sockets.
But Ben is oblivious to it all – or more accurately, he registers no recognition, no apparent interest in his little brother’s discovery. A moment later, Ben is again in perpetual motion, slapping the straw like a drummer.
When Ben was three, he was diagnosed with autism or, more specifically, Childhood Disintegrative Disorder, a rare and alarming diagnosis that suggests your child will gradually “disintegrate” before your eyes. Other practitioners have since questioned the validity of the CDD label in general and its application to Ben. Like many on the autism spectrum, Ben’s speech and social interaction, as well as his ability to perform daily tasks, have been severely impaired. When I watch him recede into his own world, I wonder what he’s thinking about. But perhaps he’s not thinking at all, simply existing moment to moment free of the burden of past and future. I want to believe that Ben’s limitations are also liberating: to turn on or off as he pleases, to simply ignore that which doesn’t interest him, to not feel burdened by the need for approval and affirmation or by the pressure to follow the herd.
Sometimes I prefer to think that Ben simply has his head in the clouds and, as such, is in a long line of Simons (this writer included) who aren’t always “present.” Indeed, many of Ben’s autistic traits can be considered extreme or exaggerated versions of personality traits – such as shyness, reserve, dreaminess, anxiety, among others – that run in my family going back generations. The apple doesn’t fall far from the tree; as researchers are discovering, autism seems to run in families and has a strong genetic component.
To this day I find myself alternating between moments of intense concentration and moments of tuning out. And so I am reminded of the boy who had the distinction of twice crashing his bike into a parked car. It could be that it was just too early in the morning.
Or was something else going on?