“Are you my best friend?” my son asks as the child backs away.
I rush. I am too late. My son is reaching out, trying to hug the strange, wary child. “Are you my best friend?”
A visit to the playground, an attempt at group play, invariably leads to disaster. Children’s games require cognitive stacking, maneuvering, a kind of mental dexterity that is nearly impossible for a skittish autistic mind. During tag, my son will stand stock-still while other kids run and hide. In his mind, praying for invisibility is far more reasonable than crouching behind a bush.
My son has therapists who teach him how to converse, the more complex the dialogue the more “rings” of social interaction he closes. For example, “How are you today?/I’m good—how are you?” One enclosed ring. “What are you doing today?/I’m going to play with my Legos. What are you doing?” Two enclosed rings. The more rings he closes, the greater his social progression. But his therapy does not necessarily address the impropriety of the question “Are you my best friend?”
For an autistic mind, a question is vastly different than it would be for a non-autistic mind. “Are you my best friend?” is more philosophical than literal, an abstract pondering, an eccentric artist examining an established truth.
My son is 10 years old, but he does not know how old he is. He does not know which country we live in. He cannot tie his shoes, brush his teeth, count higher than four. Only within the last month has he begun to remember his last name. Still, ever since he was first diagnosed with his neurodevelopmental condition at the age of 3, I have always recognized the tenebrous clues of consciousness glowing behind his eyes. I have learned from our staccato conversations that locked within his brain is a desperate soul who cannot communicate verbally but is brimming with delicate, tangled narratives. I have witnessed, from the endless nights lying next to him or sitting on his bedroom floor, how the thoughts of an autistic mind are constructed from a complementary language. But because the words are processed differently, sentences are hooked logically yet haphazardly like plastic hanging monkeys. “Godzilla babies like to eat Wattys, don’t they?” might be interpreted as nonsense by an outsider, but to me it is a very specific reference—a joke even—to an emotional event earlier in the week, when a wild-eyed toddler, dressed entirely in green, with a horned, emerald winter hat, grabbed my son’s doll, Watty, from the Starbucks counter, placed it in her mouth, and tried to swallow before her screeching mother intervened.