My son, Eli, was diagnosed with high functioning autism/Asperger’s Syndrome in 04/96. He knows about the good parts of autism and the hard parts of autism in his life. Eli also knows he has a tender heart which means he is highly sensitive and that he is very creative which means he is a strong right-brained learner. He is a gifted musician as well. Often, it can seem that Eli is unaware socially speaking, but I was to discover with the following incident (the names were changed to protect privacy) that he had a more sure compass:
“I’m so tired from Friday,” sighs Thomas, who attends a private Christian school and is prone to being an over-achiever.
“Yeah, I heard William was hitting on a waitress,” chimes in one of the girls.
As their Sunday School teacher, and being interested in their lives, I ask, “So, what happened Friday?”
Thomas pipes up with mock piousness, “Oh, a group of us boys worked on my Eagle Project, and afterward, we went to the pizza place.”
I instantly know to what he is speaking. Two weeks previous, while visiting my good friend in her home, I noticed she had a notation on her family calendar for her second son to participate in Thomas’ upcoming Eagle Scout project. I mentioned to her that I hadn’t heard the announcement about needing help for the project in regards to letting my son, Eli, 13 at the time, who is a member of the Boy Scout troop, know so he could be involved.
“Oh, we received a personal and professionally created invitation in the mail just the other day requesting his presence for the event,” my friend punctuated meaningfully in reference to Thomas’ family’s lean to perfectionism.
“Oh? Interesting. Eli didn’t get an invitation,” I said off-handedly, so as not to bring too much meaning to my realization.
“Well, my son can’t go anyway. He’s got football practice.”
And our conversation moved on to other things.
Back in Sunday School class, I anxiously glance over at Eli to see if he is paying attention. Luckily, as is usual when the lesson digresses to some general conversation, his face shows that blank but concentrated look that indicates he is self-entertaining within his own interesting but unusual mind.
My curiosity peaked and fishing for a little more information in order to decide how best to proceed, I ask, “So, who came to help?”
Thomas rolls his eyes and complains, “Only William, Justin, Mark and I.”
He’s got good reason to feel jilted, I think to myself. That’s probably only a quarter of the troop’s number.
“That’s too bad that more didn’t come to help, but it looks like you had fun even though you had to work harder,” I say out loud.
“Yeah,” he agrees.
After some additional conversation and chiding from the girls, I eventually steer the focus back to our Sunday School lesson, and I pull Eli back into the flow of information and discussion. But, I’m sad. Another opportunity missed for Eli. He would have really enjoyed it. Another specifically chosen exclusion by someone Eli would consider his “friend”.
Now, the difficult decision I must contemplate. Do I confront Thomas? ignore what happened? reveal the incident to Eli? inform the leaders? educate the entire group of boys? I quickly ascertain that it would not be advantageous in any way to go public with any of this. Further, what Eli doesn’t know will not hurt his tender heart. Besides, his naïveté is a model to us all. If only we all could be so straightforward, honest, trusting and without guile! This time, I choose to educate the individual.
I see Thomas alone in the hallway walking to his next class. I glide over and put my arm around him, walking alongside for a moment. I speak softly and gently.
“I’m just curious. Why didn’t you invite Eli to help with your Eagle Project?”
“Umm, ahhh,” Thomas stammers. “I thought he was busy that weekend.”
Chuckling inwardly at the illogical excuse, I enthusiastically reply, “You know, Eli would have really enjoyed painting. He’s really good at that type of thing. He would have been a great help to you.”
I give him a squeeze and a smile and walk away. Maybe it will help open his eyes.
About three months later, I had my answer. Again, in Sunday School class, Thomas is acting different . . . tired, he says, from the Friday night birthday party with Justin. Justin is in the next class up, but associates with Eli in several arenas, including Boy Scouts. Again, I quickly glance at Eli to ascertain his awareness to yet another obvious exclusion. Nope. I exhale slowly and sadly.
But not for Eli . . . For others who are choosing not to know him and all that he can bring to a friendship or an activity. For others who find it so important to blend in and be on the perfect path to social acceptance and worldly adoration. For others who refine their exterior appearance and hide their interior humanity. For others who are quick to recognize what or who can propel them to the next rung on the social ladder and ignore or belittle what or who can stretch them to the next level of social truth.
And then Eli shows me his own avenue of awareness. The very next day after this latest incident, a Monday, I am driving Eli to his piano lesson. Out of the blue, to me anyway, but a typical conversation starter for him, Eli asks in his usual straightforward, but unclear fashion, “What is it about Thomas?”
“What do you mean?” I’ve learned to use this strategy so that I know what he is really interested in talking about.
“Well, I don’t know if you know this, but I can feel what other people are feeling. It’s like a special power.”
“Really!?” I gape, as I had recently heard other highly sensitive people mention this particular ability on an e-mail list to which I subscribe.
“Yeah. And with Thomas, it’s all confused. Whenever I’m around him, I just feel confused. Why do you think that is?”
How appropriate! How intuitive! How Eli! I believe everyone has gifts or “special powers”. What others may see in Eli is someone who speaks simply sometimes, disordered at other times. They see him as sweet, but a loner, disconnected. But here he shows that he has his own filter for people. He may be unaware of the physical and verbal interactions going on around him that mean so much more than is being said, he may not or cannot interpret or translate these things in order to know where his place is, or who that person is, but he has his heightened intuitive perceptions that let him know that something is not quite right. He has found his own way to discover Truth.
I go into my interpreter role for Eli. The talent and skill I can bring to Eli is my analytical and people skills. I see very clearly what is going on with people, like Thomas, but I also understand very clearly Eli’s tender heart and sweet naïveté regarding others. So, I use language that is truly generous to Thomas because he is also just a person trying to figure things out and being influenced by the people in his life and the environment in which he is placed. I explain that Thomas is playing a part and/or a game that he feels will help him in life. This interprets that he may not be being true to himself or who he is, and thus, the possible reason that Eli receives confused feelings from him. Eli understands my explanation and feels at peace regarding the feelings he had received regarding Thomas. It makes sense to him and we continue the conversation about social choices different people make.
Eli teaches me about who he is all the time, and this situation was no different. He may not tune into words that are spoken which may or may not be honest, but he is attuned to feelings that express a person’s insides that reflect their true status. What a gift! So what about the socialization question in this instance? Eli may not be included in certain activities, but he has a full and happy life surrounding his interests. Eli may not be included in the up and coming circle of over-achievers, but the friends he does have are based on honest connection and loyalty. Eli may not show awareness of the confusing social nuances around him, but he is aware that others are confused. Two boys . . . Two social paths . . . Two gifts.