My son Will (not his real name — I’ve got to protect the kid) looks in most respects like a typical teen boy. But Will has a difference. Will has Asperger’s syndrome. It’s a mild form of autism. In most respects, Will functions like a normal, average person, but not in all respects. Some aspects of socialization elude him completely. It’s not so much that he doesn’t understand them. It’s that, in his mind, they either don’t exist or they’re not worth his time.
I saw a documentary recently about Asperger’s in which a young woman with the syndrome said she used to look at popular people and think they must not be very intelligent. Her reasoning then was, popular people didn’t have enough interesting things going on in their own heads, so they needed to interact with others to find enough to occupy their minds. At that time, she felt lucky to have so much going on in her own mind so she didn’t have such a problem. I think Will’s in the same place now she was then. But I don’t know, because I can’t get in his head.
So, Will doesn’t turn in homework, or even in-class assignments. His teachers all agree he knows the material and say he could get A’s and B’s if he’d turn it in, but he’s failing the classes. But the catch is, he does know the material. He knows he knows it, so why do the homework or classwork? It doesn’t prove anything to him.
Grooming? Will doesn’t see the point. Combing his hair just takes time in the morning, time he could use for another minute of sleep.
The one major social interaction Will has is marching band. He’s been a band member since middle school, when he was allowed to join the high-school band. He’s friends with a number of band members, within the context of the band season. He blossoms while the band is competing each fall, even if his grades still tank. But his interactions with the other band members end as the marching season does.
On Saturday, Will’s marching band season ended. The band was eliminated at semi-state competition, failing to advance to the state contest. They had a great show, but it wasn’t quite enough.
Band members released paper lanterns after returning to the school. Other band members hugged at the end of a strong season with a disappointing finish. Will got in the car and simply said, with no emotion, “It’s what I thought would happen.”
This isn’t to say Will is an unemotional robot. Quite the contrary, he has some sort of outburst with some frequency, generally when things aren’t going his way or inanimate objects aren’t cooperating. In fact, his outbursts tend to escalate quickly and get quite intense, but he calms down just as fast, and expects everything after he’s calmed down to be just as it was before.
I ache for Will, for his future. His disconnect with the world is so minor in some ways, but so profound in others. He is, according to all his teachers, brilliant, but I fear he won’t be ready to handle what he’ll have to deal with in life. He just doesn’t see how much people care about him. I know he cares about others; his love of us, and especially of his mom, shows in variety of ways, to us. But others see it and don’t understand, because they don’t understand Asperger’s, or Will. What will happen to him when he’s on his own? It’s the same anxiety I’ve had for my other children, but multiplied. I knew they could cope with the world, and find joy in it. I believe Will can find joy, but I don’t know about coping.
I can get into the heads and hearts of my characters, even those disconnected from their emotions and the world around them, like Andrea, the heroine in my upcoming book, Overgrowth, or BeBe, a key character in my novel Eve’s Thieves. I can empathize with real people, put myself in their shoes and weep for them. But I can’t understand what’s going on in Will’s head.
I wish I could find the key for him that would work like the young woman did for herself in the documentary, the one that would get him to comprehend how important it is to share things with others. But so far, neither I nor anyone else in his life has been able to open that lock.
Marching band season is over. Now Will will go back to isolation and video games, and he will not feel like he’s missing out on anything.
And my heart aches for my son.