People. Isaac so often relishes them, yet so rarely relates to them. It’s one of the crueller features ascribed his autism. A skills shortage in handling that pesky, unpredictable species we call typical human beings – that belies a deep desire to communicate, be part of, socialise and interact.
He pines for a person’s presence and playfulness; yet is left startled by their byzantine body language; facial expressions and subtle emotions are a foreign dialect. Who smiles when they’re sad? When someone is wide eyed, are they joyous or on the verge? How can a stare be amused or angry? The face fibs.
Human behaviour has unwritten rules set in stone by the exacting standards of instinct and intuition. Things unsaid, reciprocation and interpretation. Sarcasm, shades of friendship and physical space. To touch or not to touch. How, when and whom to hug. So much human interaction is horribly vague for Isaac. The irony being that the nuance and specificity particular to the unwritten rule evades so many rule-aficionado autistic people like my son. If Isaac’s mental rulebook is indelible with logic, the chapter on reading people is in invisible ink.
The dissonance between intent and inability plays out most sharply at playtime, or any unstructured kid zone. Where free play and frolics jar with the unbending Isaac. Coldly articulated as emotional and social delay (two traits he’d perhaps over index on in a less constrained, less judgemental universe) Isaac’s behaviour means he is swift to flat-line even in the confines of his specialist school environment (and especially not in, for example, a raucous ten year olds’ party, should, on the rare occasions, I nudge with all my hoard of strength, caution to the wind). He knows he wants to befriend and have friends, he’s not entirely sure how. He’s forever seeking connections, picking people out, willing a love in.
But once he makes that tentative step from solitary to sociable play, he can hit the wall. Isaac’s blunt negotiating can be an incursion into that loose but intricate web of a social setting. His thunderous approach tramples over chit chat, codes, school japes, the benign jostle, the impossible-to-describe mood and ambience (the old – Woody Allen? – quote about analysing humour is like dissecting a frog can be applied to analysing how people mix, gel, have chemistry; you lose the frog).
He’ll pull and push too much. Squeeze instead of share. Misread rapid wordplay between pals. Not take turns. My 4 year old has a comparative fluency in this untaught but universal suite of physical language and everyday expressions. These faculties flowed into her barely noticeably. Yet whenever I see her make an effortless gesture, comprehension, reaction, whatever, my heart races towards a dead heat of relief and regret.
Back to playtime, his self-control goes into exile. He becomes crotchety quickly. Sensory and physical problems sour things further, his need for stimulation making the squeezing that bit tighter. His low body awareness dulling his physical space-nous even more. Noise and brightness, as pointed for him as shards of freshly snapped glass. Tears, discipline, angst. Daily I’d imagine. But things rectify quickly. Supervision smooths things out, in and out of school.
Indeed, these types of experience suggest just a snapshot of his wider existence. They’re poignant but transient. Time spent with his ragbag of autism-very-friendly cousins witnesses a magnetic social presence; won over as they seem to be by his charm and unconventional collegiate approach. They adapt, allow, absorb his controlling ways; enamoured by his honest and heartfelt love for them. Perhaps this is that less constrained and judgemental parallel universe.
Not being in possession of the innate encyclopaedia of unspoken language and behaviours weighs heavily though. Somewhat selfishly on me too. When glum, I wonder why a chunk of this human skill we take for granted has somewhat evaded Isaac. After all, accessible academic text of the moment, Sapiens, by Yuval Noah Harari, suggests our abilities to cooperate and to understand social structures, to interpret interpersonal relations, started tens of thousands of years ago. Really? Not for everyone I’d fathom.
Yet, yet, yet. Progress is being made. Phenomenal progress. Social skills are high on his school curriculum. He’ll proudly, breathlessly, deliver a gold star day – chapter and verse:
“I didn’t pinch my friends today at playtime, I got over excited but I was able to control myself, it was hard but I reached my target. I helped another pupil not be angry in the classroom before assembly. Then we had lessons, in English we were happy and told stories…”
The method of slotting something not so natural, like socialising, into a something ingrained, like his routine, reaps benefits.
Of course, the role of language here cannot be understated – there’s an over dependence on it but it’s a blessing.
It was not always thus, what with his tardy and atypical language acquisition. The word by word, sentence by sentence, need to learn-it-all and say-it-all approach. There will always be something of the revision obsessed GCSE language student about him, labouring over translations, the walking, talking textbook. Announcing, scripting, regurgitating.
And I adore his formality of speech, his eloquence of elaborate over explaining. It’s the cornerstone of his memory. Facts wholly logged into his database, processed, then ready to be spat out at any time.
Yet this tendency to be literal; to use learnt phrases. Does it also represent a struggle with the spontaneity of language? Is it, in fact, a compensation for his lack of those linguistic gymnastics that ease sociability and act in a similarly illogical and contradictory way to facial, bodily language and the like.
Very, very likely.
Isaac is the pushy street seller – desperate to hawk lovingly curated titbits of knowledge (music, people’s birthdays, trains) whether you want them or not. Sheer semantic force elicits an approval, a logical response that’s as reassuring as it is uncomplicated.
He now knows and remembers everyone in his universe’s date of birth and age. Many, many people, much detail. And it’s always an urgent process to ask, confirm and remind.
“Papa Paul was born in 1933. He is 84 years old. Is he old or can he still run?” Or someone else, may be younger but not as sprightly, his device for managing the ambiguity of whether people seem their age or not, being whether they can run “or have a stick and therefore are old but not dead”.
Whether reported to me or the actual recipient, this one way alley of information is controlled by him and, whether answering a question for the first time or confirming for the umpteenth time, has a clarity he can comprehend. He can read if we are impressed by his knowledge, or engaged by answering a closed question.
While these parameters serve a purpose, proving his resourcefulness and abilities, and are his glue for social interaction, they have their limits; they become too self-serving. We seek an alternative, a way of improvising away from his script.
The long winded specific language and the miss – or non – read of human communication, over feed off each other. What Isaac seems to be demonstrating is how hard just being instantaneous is, living in the now, that everyday ephemeralness.
Which is why I am therefore thankful, hugely, hugely, thankful for the role that tech has started to play in his life. It’s filled the awkward chasm of confusion around communication. Genuinely, sensitively, intuitively. By humanising him in so many ways.
Smartphones and tablets aren’t screens that shut him out of sociability, they are the windows into a sociable world. Sometimes in the most unorthodox of ways:
Take Uber, that great, detested disruptor, the necessary evil. For Isaac, it’s so much more than a utility, it’s a loved enabler.
When we get what Isaac labels “the Uber taxi”, his world widens from the moment the time starts to tick on the app, the map appears, the driver details make themselves known. Driver’s name clocked, registration noted, countdown for arrival commenced. And then, in we jump.
“Hello Dervis, very nice to meet you, are you having a nice day? Mmm, your car smells lovely. I will put my seatbelt on then we can leave. Thank you very much.”
Greeting an Uber driver by his name never fails to elicit a wildly surprised but utterly genuine – utterly interpretable for Isaac – smile and appreciation. A connection is made. The atmosphere is warm, Isaac knows it. He has initiated this unexpected interaction. It’s kind of beautiful, calling an Uber driver by his name – try it.
Naturally, every Uber journey he’s been on, when, where to and from, and the driver’s name, get packaged up and parked up securely in his brain.
Then there are the filters, face swapping apps, emojis: in yer face – literally – exaggerated but truthful and funny visual languages. These form his daily diet of sumptuous silliness that simplifies his world, his take on people and things. Tools that far from swallowing him up, make him sweat with laughter. A catalyst for chat with us the shared screen, lowering the boundaries of opaque human speak, and streamlining his use of language to be more relevant, contextual and concise. Win, win.
For the first time recently, I saw him sit with a child his own age, who he’d just met, and bond through the apps. They take the sting out of over stimulation, free him from being too physical, and he eases up on the verbiage. Before, when a relationship may have ground to a halt, the power of tech now means it steps up a gear.
Such sessions, when successful, end in his talk of the day being “a laughing day, it was so funny. My eyes are wet. Can you wipe my glasses?”
Finally, onto messaging, texting, WhatsApp, whatever you want to call it. On an almost preternatural plain, we, as ‘neurotypicals’ – myself and my wife – have become more measured, sympathetic and considered ourselves, whilst Isaac articulates and communicates so much more openly. My wife messages with him, one on one, via devices, when not together, or even when in the same location. Freed from the congested roundabout of conversation, distractions flying, obstacles everywhere, he can pause, think and opine, in his time, in his space. With emojis to affirm his feelings he can nuance, “I’m a feeling a little happy today mummy, now I’d like to be quiet.” He’ll ask, “How are you? Can you tell me who your pupils are? Have you loved your day teaching today?” He’ll, at times, tell me, “We don’t need to talk any more. I’m playing with Tabitha now.”
He can manage processing and responding, liberating his emotional intelligence and expressions. By her own admission, my wife is having conversations with him, the like and gravity of which, she’s never had before.
Tech adds and complements. There’s no tweaking of the autistic traits that make him him. Indeed, tech in the form of the IPad has deepened, made even more immersive his singular train love. Making films and categorising. Time lapses, slo-mos, titling. Epics or documentaries. He arrives at the Jubilee line ready to shoot, and his greeting to it is anything but typical:
Unabashed, in raptures, he’ll broadcast:
“Ah yes, hello Jubilee line. It’s my lucky day. I love you and can smell it’s the new refurbished trains. Oh yes, I’m so happy. I won’t film people I promise.”
The technology key to his hobby, the happiness visceral.
Technology in all its guises is a major thing. Just not everything. However critical and crucial it is, it will never be a crux, only a catalyst. As he says:
“I’m legal to watch my iPad. Not the whole time though.”