There were fingerprints all over the screen, and the NBA Finals game was about to start. I tried to scrub them off, but they were sticky.
“Jack, this is gross. You’ve got to stop touching the screen, especially after you eat those cookie balls.”
He wouldn’t acknowledge me, except to parrot back a few words as if to mollify my frustration.
Our television is raised up fairly high, and Jack, my eleven year old autistic son, has been secretly smuggling chairs into the living room in order to get high enough to touch the top of it. Part of that, I suspect, is an attempt to mimic Arlo from Pixar’s The Good Dinosaur, who reaches up high with his foot and says, “I’m gonna make my mark.”
But there’s more to the mystery than that. The fact is, our boy has been bringing a little extra OCD to the autism party as of late. He refuses to enter the special needs room at church. He gets frantic, kicking and screaming with a “there’s-a-great-white-shark-in-the-room” kind of terror. And at home, he melts down at our gentlest prodding to go on a bike ride, or to do anything, really, that he doesn’t want to do. The screaming that follows the words “back yard” must raise eyebrows in the neighborhood from time to time. He won’t touch my phone (he’s scared of that, too), and now he won’t even touch some of his treasured laminated pictures that literally line our bookshelves. Yet he will touch the TV screen. Often. Just another puzzle…
Seasons like these can be draining, because the boy won’t give an inch. He would fight every battle if we let him. We have to pick where to aim our energies. It can be a bit depressing. The world requires flexibility of its citizens, and he is more inflexible today than he’s ever been. What will all this mean for his future?
But then, these seasons contain reassuring moments, too. Case in point: on Friday, I came home with my daughters in the late afternoon, and Jack and Sara were alone in the house. The soundtrack from The Good Dinosaur was filling the house, and Jack was curled up beneath his favorite blanket with his new penguin book. He was in his happiest place, and his face showed it. When he saw me, he beamed as if to say, “Dad you’re home! Now I have everything I will ever need.” And it made me think of the first penguin book and the moment three years ago when everything changed. He wore the same smile.
I saw something else the next day, too. Through open door in my bedroom, I could see Jack sneaking the chair beneath the tv, and climbing on it. There was no movie playing, only various pictures floating slowly upward. Our AppleTV screensaver was set to National Geographic wildlife images. Jack reached up with one finger. The screen distorted to purple around the spot he touched. Irritation flashed in me. He’s going to ruin that screen, I thought, sitting up.
Then I saw it. A penguin. He was touching all the penguin pictures.
I sat back down and closed my mouth. In a season of such sticky obsessions and meltdowns, the boy still draws strength and peace from his penguins. It started with the original Jack and Daddy book. He remembers it as well as I do. It’s why he has been keeping this new book close to him, and why he’s asking to watch the penguin documentaries on Netflix. We are a story family, and penguins were Jack’s very first metaphor. They stand for me and him. For us, together. More broadly, penguins represent family.
I’m writing about this today to remind myself how much it all matters. I am speaking to my own soul. True, right now, the horizon doesn’t look especially bright. Jack is eleven. Soon he will be a teenager. His intensifying behaviors are going to complicate his transition into adolescence. All our concerns about his future feel more solid than ever.
And yet, our greatest concern has been assuaged once and for all: Jack is not oblivious to his family’s affection. Rather, he is still captivated by it. He loves us and we love him. He may not be able to tell us in sentences, but he can show us with a picture.
So there goes my son now, pushing his chair further into the living room and deeper into life. We don’t know what storms this season might bring, but our boy is not alone. He is armed with the power of a metaphor, and with it, he will find a way to stand tall. He will make his mark.
Feature image courtesy of the always awesome Anne Nunn Photographers.