“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.
My son will spend countless hours by himself, building magnificent, golden Duplo castles. Typical for kids with autism, he is happy to retreat into the depths of his mind, losing his rambunctious and vivid imagination, alone, safe in a corner. He is a boy playing, but he’s also a boy muttering speculations and astute opinions, aware of the strangeness of the world, acutely observant of the minutest details.
His best friend, Watty, a Playmobil doll, will skip through the various Lego or Duplo rooms saying, “this room is like the gym at school where the echo hurts our ears” or “this is the room where we hide during birthdays.” I will give my son a zerbert on the back of his neck, and he will howl but say nothing. Later, I will hear Watty ask, “Your father thinks you still like zerberts, doesn’t he?”
When we venture out of the house as a family, Watty bounces from windowsill to countertop to deli window. The Playmobil doll speaks to shopkeepers, asking awkward questions such as, “Do you like Watty flying backward through her time-portal?” Watty and my son’s conversation is often little more than a murmur, but their confidential discourse elicits stares. Watty has become my son’s constant companion, and, while other kids are playing football or going to music lessons, my son will sit by himself or walk around, conversing and debating with a piece of plastic.
“Are you my best friend?” he asks.
“I am,” Watty replies.
They say that writing fiction leads to insanity because a writer must convince his audience, with sufficient authority, that his imaginary world is real. I spend my days sitting alone in a room, creating elaborate stories concerning make-believe characters, justifying my solitude by reasoning that I’m creating higher art.
Recently, I took hundreds of hardback novels out of storage. As I was admiring my collection, a friend said to me, “It’s like revisiting old friends.” And he was right. Seeing Yossarian, Janie Crawford, Leopold Bloom, and Lennie Small gave me a certain comfort that I have not felt in a long time. In the end, I realized, Madame Bovary is no more real than Watty.
There hasn’t always been Watty. First there was Saartje, which, in Dutch (my son attends a special-needs, Dutch-speaking school), means “little Sarah.” Saartje was an old Disney Jungle Book doll, Shanti, from the land of the humans. Saartje’s disintegration came quickly, one week losing her limbs and, a week later, her torso. Soon, she was only a head.
My son improvised her body. Sometimes her torso was a pencil, other times, the handle of a plastic spoon, and, on hikes in the forest, Saartje literally became a pinewood stick figure. At restaurants, to the waiter’s dismay, my son would order for Saartje. When he tried to play with other kids, he would hold up her disembodied head and say, “This is my best friend, Saartje.”
Saartje’s head went everywhere: in the shower, on the toilet, into the car, under the pillow at bedtime. We went online and found an exact, full-bodied replica, but, when it arrived in the mail, my son only stared at the new doll blankly. Saartje’s head was often dropped or misplaced and in order to quell the rising storm, the whole family would rummage through the house frantically, upturning tables and chairs. Sometimes we failed to find it on time and my son would have already melted into a heaping, hysterical mass. We tied her head with a string around his neck, but the effect was barbarous. In the end, for years, we were a family reduced to searching gutters or car seats or backyards for a lost plastic doll’s head. A life controlled by something small, inanimate, and made in China is a surreal tyranny.
We were all secretly relieved when Saartje fell off a narrow canyon during a hike in Green River, Utah. The mourning process was extravagant, more so than the loss of a family pet. In the following days, my son cried, became insomnious, drew pictures of the plastic head, made imitation Saartje’s with pinecones or pieces from other broken dolls. In his own associative way, he went through the seven stages of grief. Finally, somewhere around Christmas, when we adopted a dog, our son found Watty in a catalogue (she’s a Playmobil dog-walker), and our relief was not unlike when a heartbroken teen begins dating someone new after a particularly bad break-up.
Watty, like Saartje, is also a girl: a plastic doll with a red shirt, flowing brown hair, perfectly spaced eyes, and a single smiling mouth. When Watty arrived, we no longer had the fight in us to dissuade him from having a new “best friend.” We allowed Watty the same freedoms as we allowed Saartje, if not more. Watty likes bananas and hip-hop and, similar to our dog, loves to explore the undersides of tables, inspect trash, play in the mud. While my son is showering, Watty regularly takes a bath in a cup of bleach-water.
In Steve Silberman’s Neurotribes, he points out that up until recently, psychiatrists stopped autistic people from “stimming,” i.e., flapping their arms or rocking. We know now that such behavior is a kind of self-regulation against overstimulation. My son has always needed to hold something tightly in his hand. For years I tried to discourage this behavior until a therapist explained that many autistic people often feel as if they are in only partial control of their appendages. For my son, always gripping something in his hands helps him maintain a kind of physical and mental balance.
There are hundreds of kinds of autism therapy. The most common is Applied Behavior Analysis, a form of behavior modification. I’ve never been entirely comfortable with ABA, which emphasizes the use of interventions like modeling, schedules, and self-management. It feels medieval to control autistic behavior as if it were a bonsai, bending it toward some obtuse norm.
The method we’ve always used is known as a Developmental Individual-difference Relationship-based (DIR) model called “floortime,” which requires communicating with my son on his level, or as the name suggests, literally taking the time to lie on the floor and play along with his imaginary games, allowing him to take the lead no matter how strange and abnormal that lead might be. Floortime is about using play to understand how a child with autism sees the world and then applying their exotic perception to help them reach their potential. The approach is more complex, nuanced, and therefore far more time-consuming than methods involving behavior modification. However, I believe floortime allows my son to explore the circuitous and often creative synaptic pathways of his mind, helping him understand the wellspring of his own behavior. And this is why, perhaps, we have allowed Watty a certain freedom within our family, giving her rein to participate in family photos, contribute to weekend plans, comment on the films we watch together.
In the past, children with autism chose to be by themselves, muttering into the air; they lacked souls, were born of cold mothers, were more concerned with themselves than the world around. Now we understand, as explained in Naoki Higashida’s enlightening book, The Reason I Jump, that for those with autism, social engagement is far more painful than the dull ache of exclusion.
My son is incredibly social, but he still struggles with the basic skills needed to communicate. I have watched, with despair, as he has drifted away from socializing and, instead, turned to other forms of expression.
My son cannot read nor write and lacks the the motor skills required for drawing or painting. His mother is a filmmaker, so, unsurprisingly, he has gravitated toward photography. He began using a refurbished iPhone, but when I gave him an old digital camera—something with weight and bulk, sturdy in his hands—he was suddenly consumed with purpose. Lacking discretion, he is known to walk straight up to someone, click a photo, and turn away without a single word.
To scroll through my son’s photos, many which we put up on his Instagram account, is to explore a world that only he can see, a landscape of people absorbed by cellphones; overlooked, abandoned objects; children alone or hiding. It is almost as if he is focused on the solitude of others, his lens gravitating toward their active isolation.
Much of his photography involves not only the world around him, but Watty as well. I once asked him why he photographs Watty, and he replied that, in fact, the doll was the photographer, not him. It was a strange response, but not surprising. By simultaneously allowing Watty to dominate the photo and be the photographer, my son, in a way, is realigning the real world toward his own more imaginary one.
As Diane Arbus once said, “If you scrutinize reality closely enough, if you really, really get to it, it becomes fantastic.” Perhaps for my son, it is the other way around. Maybe the longer he scrutinizes the fantastic, the more photos he takes of Watty, the more real she becomes.
In Lars and the Real Girl, the character of Lars (Ryan Gosling) carries an inflatable doll that he believes is real. The town participates in the charade in hopes that Lars will recover psychologically. The movie leaves the audience with a feeling that support for a loved one should not be limited to the body, but rather should expand to the mind and the imagination.
Recently, when we celebrated my son’s 10th birthday, we held a party filled with Playmobil dolls and playsets; a Watty cake; a Watty treasure hunt; and, as a suggestion from my son, a pin-the-tail-on-the-Watty.
To the adults, the setup was odd, but not alarming. To my son’s friends and schoolmates, all with disabilities themselves, it made perfect sense. This was a party to celebrate not only my son’s birthday, but also that of his best friend—the one person who protects him from the persistent loneliness that accompanies autism.
I have never believed in a cure for autism. The mechanics of the brain are far too complicated for a simple pill or an operation. I do believe that there are ways to make autism more livable, though, whether it be through diet, magnetic stimulation, or the multitude of physical and mental therapies available. I also believe that there is enough compassion and tolerance in the world to accommodate the oddities of autistic behavior.
My son has now spent half his life carrying around a doll. He may continue for the rest of his life. Society has learned to make space for so many other kinds of diversity, so why not for neuro-difference as well?