“Daddy, Eric Clapton is not a great man.”
It was one of Isaac’s straight-faced sirens-to-attention. Sincere and serious. Thrust out of thin air and declared in his testing, testing 1-2 1-2 cadence.
Before the resolve to this big sweeping statement:
“He sings a song called cocaine that also has the word cocaine in it. It’s only for grown-ups. It’s not a nice word. It’s not appropriate. He’s not a bad man. But he’s not a great man.”
A spraying of logic, staccato style. Stunning me into conversational barbed wire, with nowhere to turn. As is often the case after something unexpected like this, Isaac then commandeered an arbitrary way out (on his terms). Controlling the dialogue with quick-fire cause and effect questions:
“Does he live in London? What’s your favourite song that’s not for grownups? Leila? Is that sad or is it soft music? Is Eric Clapton still alive?”
My predictable responses give him his dollop of dopamine. Truths he knows, facts borne out of repetition that offer reassurance. The same questions he asks over and over; his solace from anything unforeseeable.
(How do we wean him off this incessant (irritating if I’m honest – sorry) and recurring behaviour. Can we? Should we? That’s a question for another (every) day.)
But what of that humdinger of a sentence that posited the greatest guitarist of his generation may not be great after all. Unambiguous facts constructed over time in Isaac’s head – about rude words, children and adults, song titles, fame – have concluded with this delicious super-rational statement. One that could stick with the saliency of bullet tested advertising line. Off kilter whilst veering not a jot from veracity. At once bafflingly lateral yet undeniably logical. His neutral, perfunctory delivery spicing it up with sublime humour. Let’s hear it again: “Eric Clapton is not a great man.”
Isaac’s not short of these gems that don’t so much punctuate his predictable prose as pierce it. But short of shadowing him at all times, ready to scribble at a second’s notice, I can’t hope to capture each one. In fact if I attempted to, I’d mirror him in his obsession to log events in his daily journal. Where he perfectly articulates and executes hundreds and hundreds of words of small, highly accurate details about his day (as opposed to précising a big picture). Another day, another chapter of exact dialogue at numerous times of the day, what he’s heard, what he’s seen, everywhere he’s been. We’re on chapter 63 now and, quite literally, counting.
Half perched on a chair, head cocked and squinting at the computer screen, rapidly typing with one hand, Isaac coheres physically and visually the disconnected components of his space with the delicacy of a torn up newspaper that’s been hastily sellotaped back together again. His dyspraxic compensation.
And there, as he concentrates and crafts, he resembles a court reporter tap-tap-tapping the minutiae of a case. The minutiae of the day being the major feature of his testimony that’s for sure. And my how I adore him reciting his new chapter from his journal every evening.
Whilst not in possession of these transcription and memory skills, I do subconsciously stockpile the particularly sparkly verbal festoons in the aforementioned Clapton mould. Another:
“Is heaven a planet?”
Parental platitudes about going up to heaven together with some embryonic astronomy have led to this? Possibly.
And a different take on the thorny theme of mortality:
“George Michael had a fragile heart as it has broken. Did he not eat vegetables? It’s a bit of a shame he died.”
Sayings absorbed, interpretations made, heartfelt emotion accessed. Resulting in vocabulary that feels both coldly constructed and warmly caressed. And uniquely Isaac.
Eric Clapton, George Michael, many a musician make up Isaac’s lyrical maxims. Which isn’t that surprising, what with the background (mid and foreground) music to Isaac’s life being just that right now. His need to nourish his musical nous can never be tempered.
Of course, his autistic mind has to march to a militaristic beat, so what he listens to where and when is bar coded. Before bed it’s MTV Rocks; in the car it’s the contradictory seductive and grating sounds of Smooth FM; out and about, wireless permitting, Spotify, the never ending virtual songbook.
Music is his all senses-satisfied playground. He’ll settle gently on a genre before hopscotching to an alternative. Then back and forth and sideways. Data gathering all the way. Song learning. Band members, their details, all failing to fill up his unassuageable appetite. Everything meticulously memorised. From the Stone Roses to Rolling Stones, Elton John to Elbow, Bobby Gillespie to Bob Marley, Luther Vandross to John Legend, The Pogues to The Prodigy – that’s just some alliterations I’ve plucked amid the A to Z.
One question that Isaac always asks during musical musings is whether Paul has worked with said artist; Paul being a music producer and song writer friend of ours. I often don’t know the answer, but knowing Paul as I do, err on the side of “yes, probably. But write to him to find out.”
The subsequent long letters from Isaac that only really seek monosyllabic yes or no responses are diligently replied with interesting – indeed iridescent – information. For example, despite not having worked with Oasis, Paul reports that as a very young man he was making tea when Oasis penned Wonderwall. And Isaac also learnt that Primal Scream were getting some production panache from Paul whilst Isaac’s mummy was in hospital giving birth to…Isaac.
Harbouring this human link to music has helped Isaac’s social skills for absolute sure. A friendship with Paul as well as the adoption to his musical mind armoury of less concrete, more conversational, narrative ‘stuff’ that pampers and personalises his explicitly factual knowledge.
And all the time, Isaac’s unconditional need to tell us back everything he’s absorbed from all musical sources mentioned (often via those closed questions once he knows we are in possession of the answers). Softening the rile of the regurgitation, for me, is the possibility of the dexterous linguistic detours that I’ve been talking about – Isaac semantic smashers that stop and squeeze you with a benign but bear like hug. Another: “David Furnish is married to Elton John so that must not be his name, he must be called David John.”
This Isaac. With his musical interests and diction-to-die-for in gale force flow is something to go with. Our journey has, is, and will be, anything but plain sailing. Coasting on castors, laid back parenting it isn’t. Nothing is linear. But when (for an hour, a day, a week, a month, time’s fluid at best) the handbrake turns an unexpected corner like this, there’s a free-wheeling, wind in the hair, rapture to the parenting ride.
Further embroidering this experience has been Isaac’s ever flourishing singing voice, melodic and beautifully choral, thus ramping up my dad jubilation to 11. Yes, it’s his sleep companion and handy stress release mechanism. It’s also his talent he’s started to share, that expresses, emotes, and spreads delight.
But with this parenting rush racing headily, always comes the risk of a pivot, a pot hole, a jolt. The auguries to any event around the corner always possess a degree of dread when autism is involved. How one handles them can best be quantified on an inner-self continuum of calm to catastrophe.
I was relatively calm contemplating Isaac’s recent school show, coming as it did during this magically musical time. Such is Isaac’s school’s celebration of, and tenacious sticking to, the concepts of difference and inclusivity and individuality, his music teacher had helped him create and rehearse an extraordinary piece. A performance, to accompanied bongos and light-techno backing track, of the 1990s Swedish Euro Dance aficionado Bass Hunter, ‘Now you’re gone’. It being from the dance, electronic genre, I imagine Isaac’s Spotify sessions had sourced it; the school obliged, encouraged.
Behind his bedroom door I heard him sing and practice. School sung his praises about his rehearsals during music class. Engaging Isaac on it would lead to evasiveness on his part as ever. But with such a foundation in place, with the time and date set, I erred towards calm over catastrophe.
And on the day of the show, from nowhere, a blanket refusal. An empty stage bar from the intro to the song on loop and a large projection of Bass Hunter. Lights, camera, no action. The ambience possessing the sorrow of a Pinteresque pause to proceedings. Any discomforting whispers in the audience barely muffing Isaac’s off stage screeching and shrieking of “I’m not doing the stupid Bass Hunter. It’s rubbish!!”
Nothing, no teacher, no parent, no persuasive elder pupil, would get him up there. No one had a clue why, or has since.
A little discombobulated, we all departed after the show. However sensitive, any mention was met with silence, or responded to with a different subject. Isaac showed no signs of regret, sorrow or ‘missed out’ syndrome.
Sympathetic teachers reassured us, emphasizing that the elaborate as-if-for-real dress rehearsal had been superb. And when I saw the clip they’d filmed of it, I was so bowled over I bawled my eyes out. Sung beautifully, funnily, extravagantly. Dancing, comic dancing. In the mic, pumping out the vocals, playing the crowd. Truly, honestly, beyond my wildest dreams.
My wife tentatively showed Isaac the clip. He smiled and enjoyed it; in a low key, ephemeral, don’t-need-to-revisit kind of way.
And that was that. The music plays on in our house. Isaac propels, reverses, stays still, propels. Sometimes all in a day. The speech is as eloquent and unexpected as ever.
So at this point, things get selfish. (Limiting my complete despair, the show had started with Isaac performing the narrator role in a wacky interpretation of The Hare and the Sloth with aplomb – except for distrust of the audience’s genuinely loving laughter, and not wanting us to look at him, so he’d hiss “stop staring” at us in between his lines).)
I can’t deny upset at his rejection. The chorus of empathy from parents of typical children connected with me for sure. All children rebel, show stage fright, are defiant.
Still, I’m sad. Still, the outright, impossible to remedy refusal seems as much autistic as not.
I’m not seeking to cauterise any confusion around Isaac. There’s just an acknowledgement of befuddlement. Where, sometimes, does his behaviour, feelings, expression come from? Will we forever feel the farrago of what are and what are not autistic behaviours?
The out of the blue nature affirms the complicated colour to our lives. Both in his impossible to predict actions like at the school show; but also with the wondrous Eric Clapton type phrases and blessed way of interacting with us and the world.