My youngest son, Garrett, turned 21 yesterday. Were it not for COVID-19, I’d have taken him out last night for a drink. We were both looking forward to it.
Garrett has what they used to call Asperger’s syndrome. I’ve danced around naming it for years in stories like this one and this one, but have always shied away because it’s more his story to tell than it is mine. But I’m taking the risk today because I have a story to tell about him and me and my dad, and how there may be a common thread that runs through all of our lives.
Garrett is a junior in college and he’s on track to graduate. He seems happy. I think he has a great chance at launching into a successful adulthood, on his own terms.
That wasn’t always true. Starting in about middle school he seriously struggled with communication, organization, and school deadlines. He broke some school rules, and ended up in trouble — if the rule didn’t make logical sense to him, he would follow it only if it were convenient to do so. He was once suspended for repeatedly walking down an up staircase. (That rule did make no logical sense.) If a class didn’t interest him or if he felt the teacher was unkind, he couldn’t bring himself to participate or do the homework. He didn’t have any friends, and I think he was desperately lonely. He was easily overwhelmed. He felt a lot of stress.
I worried endlessly over Garrett. At first, my approach to him was not helpful and may have been counterproductive. I rode him hard on getting organized and getting things done. I was scared to death that he would not succeed through school. I succeeded in school, my brother succeeded in school, my other son Damion succeeded in school. I had no script for a kid who didn’t. I had no idea what to do. I needed this kid to be all right.
You all know I was divorced after a disastrous and destructive marriage. There was no co-parenting with Garrett’s mom. At her best, she simply wouldn’t engage; at her worst, she was deeply unpleasant. So I turned to my parents for support and advice. I talked to them a lot about Garrett and how best to help him.
Dad had an almost supernatural understanding of this kid. He seemed to get Garrett at the deepest levels.
That doesn’t mean that Dad always knew what I should do for Garrett. His advice was sometimes obviously and painfully wrong. Dad believed that if you just were able to reason with people, say the right thing, get them to see the light, that their behavior would suddenly change for the better.
I know better, because he tried to raise me that way. I endured hours of him trying to convince me of his view. I hated it. I wanted our relationship to be characterized more by happy shared experiences. But moreover, I deeply wanted to figure out my life for myself. I could listen to Dad’s perspective and advice as long as it was okay to adopt what made sense to me and leave what didn’t. I did adopt some of his way, the part that made sense to me. I did leave the rest — and that was hard for Dad to accept.
But when I talked to Dad about Garrett he was always able to help me find a calm place. His advice sometimes helped.
When I called, Dad always answered the phone. “Hey Dad, it’s Jimbo,” I’d always say. He always replied, “Jimbo! Let me get your mom.” But if I needed to talk about Garrett, I’d say, “wait, no, I need to talk to just you.”
It was obvious that this pleased Dad. Dad really, really, really wanted to be a source of wisdom and advice to his two sons. When it came to Garrett, he could be. I’d talk to him about what I was experiencing, and Dad had an uncanny way of giving a rationale, an explanation, or a perspective that fit.
I called Dad over and over and over.
And then one day after Garrett had started high school, I wrung my hands to Dad over Garrett one more time. One last time. Because then Dad said something that probably changed Garrett’s life: “Son, you can’t save them all.”
It hit me like a brick. I had been trying to save Garrett through helping him find success in life as I defined it. My dad tried to do that to me and I hated it, resisted it hard, even occasionally rebelled against it. I was determined to find my own way. I was smart, and I was capable, and even though in many ways I was like my dad, in many key ways I was not like him. His way would not be a perfect pattern for my life. I needed to find my own pattern.
So did Garrett. I finally saw it.
I immediately radically changed my relationship with my son. It had largely been characterized by me riding his ass about getting his homework done, about staying organized, about achieving.
I put all of that away. I didn’t know what else to do, so I just enjoyed my time with my son. I made my home and our time together into a quiet and safe space. No matter what was going on in his life, he could come to my house and find peace and, if he wanted it, connection.
I backed off and let him fail or succeed on his own merits.
Garrett and I began to connect on a level we had not before. He started letting me in through sharing his interests. We built a lot of Lego sets alongside each other. We played Minecraft (on computers in separate rooms) and he taught me how to build all sorts of things in that virtual world. He introduced me to Rick and Morty and other strange and funny cartoons.
As he became a junior in high school he suddenly started earning decent grades. He had been a C-D student, but out of the blue was a solid B student.
We talked about it. “You really seem to be getting it at school now. Do you know what changed in you?”
“Two words,” he said. “Stereotype threat.”
I didn’t know what that was, so I asked. “Well, we learned about it my psychology class. Basically, it means that I was seen as the screwup in the family and so I naturally tended to meet those expectations. But then Damion went off to college at the beginning of the year and it changed things around the house. I don’t know how to describe it. But I realized somehow that I could be what I wanted to be. I wanted to be someone who did well in high school.”
I knew just what he meant about Damion leaving. He had been the family’s dominant personality, and we didn’t see it until he was gone. If nobody else was talking, Damion was happy to. We did things together that were Damion’s idea or aligned to his interests. Damion’s absence gave Garrett room to be himself and to express himself.
Me getting off Garrett’s back and Damion going away to college gave Garrett the space to figure himself out.
It was a triumph for Garrett, and Dad played an important role. I wonder if Dad was also not neurotypical, and that’s why he understood Garrett so well. I’m no diagnostician, but I do see some patterns in Dad’s behavior that align. He was undiagnosed, of course. During Dad’s World War II childhood, Hans Asperger had only recently written the first papers describing the condition that would later bear his name. Asperger’s work was largely ignored until the 1980s. Even then, for a decade or more after that, autism was seldom diagnosed unless it was profound.
For that matter, I see some neurodivergent patterns in my thinking and behavior, too. I’ve written before about what a geek I was growing up, how poor my social skills were. I have some mild sensory issues — noise can be problematic for me, and I cut tags out of my shirts because they can feel like needles poking into my skin. I was even a precocious reader, figuring out words largely on my own as early as age 3. I’ve read that’s sometimes a marker for high-functioning autism.
To make it as an adult I’ve had to learn a lot of skills to fit in and get by. I started with social skills. I realized at about age 25 that I was missing out on experiences I wanted to have because I was so reticent. It was too hard to say hello to people I passed in the hallway at work, so I looked at my shoes everywhere I walked. But I wanted those new experiences, and so I worked to connect with others. I started with just saying hello to my co-workers. Later I added their name if I knew it. From there, I identified other behaviors I wanted to learn. I studied people and started to recognize social patterns. I practiced sets of responses to those patterns so I could participate with them. Now that I’m in my early 50s I pass for someone with good social skills. But even now there are still moments when I can’t recognize what’s going on socially and don’t know what to do.
I have built good executive function — that is, I handle the day-to-day stuff of life with flexibility and self-control. Many neurodivergent people struggle with this. But I learned as a teenager how important it is for me to have strong routines. They keep me from forgetting important things and let me feel in control in my life. If I abandon even one of them for more than a couple days I feel considerable stress and run out of energy long before the day is over.
One of my current routines is to spend an hour or more each morning writing and processing photos. It somehow sets my mind right for the day. If I skip it for more than a day or two, I start to come unraveled. I also have built several strong habits and follow a number of strict rules to keep myself organized. For example, my car keys are either in my pocket, on top of my dresser, or in the car’s ignition — period, or I will lose them. And thank God for Google Calendar, which reminds me when to pay the mortgage and when to change the furnace filter. It takes a lot of work to keep all of this up, but it’s far easier than the life chaos that follows when I don’t.
I’ve also had to learn how to cope with overwhelm. Too much input still blows me away. In my early 20s a good therapist taught me how to identify and label my emotions. Sometimes just knowing I’m overwhelmed is enough for me to get a handle on myself. In my late 30s another therapist helped me learn to soothe myself and tolerate distress. I also taught myself to meditate, which lets me use my breath to find calm.
All of this may or may not make me neurodivergent. I’ve thought about seeking a diagnosis, but I’m not sure it would let me access any therapies or treatments that would help me more. I am who I am, I’m reasonably happy, and I’m reasonably successful in the way I define success.
Was my dad? I don’t know. I fear not, especially late in his life. But Garrett looks to be on track for it. I’m grateful. He has his own journey ahead to figure out his life. If his journey is anything like mine, it will be a grand adventure.