Ever since my son Benjamin was diagnosed with autism sixteen years ago, I’ve found it almost impossible to write anything about our personal experiences with it. Not that there was any lack of things to write about—I could surely fill a book with what he (and we) endured. It’s just that every time I’d start to write and begin to explore the regions of my heart that had to do with Benjamin’s autism, I’d start to cry and couldn’t stop. And so it was three days ago when I wrote here about Benjamin—his victories and his pain. It took me a long while to finish because I was crying so hard, I couldn’t see to write.
But I’ve had such a need to write about it, especially when he was younger. So I did—in fictional form. This allowed me, I think, just enough space and detachment to be able to write about what grieved us. So I thought I’d post here an excerpt from the short story I wrote back then, just so you might know a small measure of what we felt when he was diagnosed. Obviously, I changed the names, and I should mention, as well, that the experiences of Gabriel, Marilee, and Dan don’t precisely mirror ours. But their feelings do.
So below is an excerpt from my story, “Circles.” It was never published and almost no one has read it (until now), but it served its purpose. The scene here is in the car, as Marilee and Dan sit numbly outside the clinic where Gabriel had just been diagnosed with autism. And, by the way, the brochure Marilee was reading was exactly the same brochure I was given, and her experience does reflect mine:
“….Marilee touched Dan’s hand. It was ice cold, and he was looking away, distant and seemingly focused on something beyond her range of vision. Gabriel’s gaze was always like that—unfocused, as though he were seeing inward rather than outward.
She could see Gabriel in the rear view mirror, moving his thumbs and fingers together rapidly, while waving his arms about. He sometimes did that for hours, flapping faster and faster, until his hands looked like separate things—small birds fluttering all around his head.
Marilee looked down at her own hands, full of booklets and brochures the doctor had given them, seemingly relieved that he had something concrete to offer. She stared at one of the booklets. Under the heading, “CHARACTERISTICS OF AUTISM,” there were stick figure drawings illustrating each characteristic. “NOT CUDDLY” showed a small figure pushing away from the embrace of a larger figure. Marilee remembered nursing Gabriel and how he’d pull away from her, his body stiffened, even as he drank from her breast. “‘SPINS OBJECTS” labeled a bent-over form absorbed in spinning a ball, oblivious to the world around him. ““RESISTS CHANGE IN ROUTINE.” In that one, the little stick person seemed to be striking the larger figure. Gabriel kept all his little cars lined up in precise rows on his shelf and flew into a rage if she moved them while dusting.
But it was when she saw “DIFFICULTY IN MIXING WITH OTHER CHILDREN” that she felt her grief rising. In the illustration, three figures sat in a closed circle, playing together. Set apart from the group and facing away was a desolate, hunched over form with his hands up to his face. Marilee suddenly imagined that she saw the truth of Gabriel’s future in that one crude stick figure drawing and she began to sob.
In the back seat, Gabriel paused for a moment, his hands suspended in the air. But as his mother continued to weep, he began the flapping again, faster and more furious, his hands like two fighting birds.
Neither Dan nor Marilee spoke on the long drive home, lost in thought and sadness. From time to time, they glanced in the rear view mirror. Gabriel was now spinning the wheels on a toy car, over and over, lost in his own solitary world.”