“So, what’s the story with these pictures?” That’s one of the first questions people ask when they step into our living room, and for good reason. Variations of this image line our bookshelves. They belong to Jack, of course, my eleven year old with severe autism. They are screenshots of his iTunes movie library, his most prized possession. The only thing Jack wants in life is to sit in the living room all day long and watch these movies, or to watch these pictures of his favorite movies.
The library image varies depending on what device Jack is using, and sometimes, when he gets tired of a movie, he’ll hide it, and the configuration changes. When he’s satisfied, he’ll take a picture of it on the iPad and ask us to print it out. We’ve done this, I’d wager, well over two hundred times.
But there’s more. These images have their own names. He might call one “White Turbo Eight,” and another one, “Black How to Train Your Dragon five.” It took us a while to decipher that code, but we got it. The color is all about the background. The number is the order in which the movie appears.
I confess, I don’t see the internal logic of these images, but that’s not the point. It matters to me because it matters to Jack.
These pictures, and especially this one (“White Good Dinosaur One”), seem to supply Jack with the predictability he hungers for. And when times get tense, he wants our reassurance: yes, son, if there’s one thing you can count on in this moment, it’s that “Good Dinosaur” is in the first position.
Last night, Jack melted down after his little brother started crying. It was pretty bad. Worse than we’ve seen in a while. And when the dust settled, he had lost his movie privilege.
Nevertheless, he crawled in our bed in the wee hours, still a little worked up from last night, I think, and squealed, “Good Dinosaur!”
I hate seeing this boy so weighed down with panic. Anxiety is the most severe and the most troubling of all the comorbid conditions that come with his brand of autism.
I want to make it all go away. The boy needs peace.
“No movies today,” I whispered, pulling him close. “But it’s okay, we’re not mad. You can watch movies tomorrow.”
He relaxed for a few minutes. Then it flared up again.
“One Good Dinosaur!” That, I knew, wasn’t a plea for the movie but for the screenshot. He didn’t want to look at it just then. Rather, he wanted to make sure I knew the order of the movies on the screenshot.
Fortunately, I did.
“One Good Dinosaur,” I began. And already, he was whispering the words with me. “Two Dragon One. Three Dragon Two. Four Inside Out. Five Wonderful Life.” (No seriously, he loves George Bailey.) “Six Monsters University. Seven Monsters Inc. Eight Planes. Nine Planes Two. Ten Turbo. Eleven Up.”
At that, he breathed a little easier, and nestled his head into my shoulder.
Look, I don’t know how it works. I just know sometimes, all we need is someone who understands what’s important to us, even if they can’t understand why it’s important.
Try as I might, I cannot interpret the internal fires that burn inside my boy’s bones, and I can only guess at why this little sequence cools them. I just know that it does cool them.
And all of it makes me wonder whether our general appetite to be understood is ultimately misguided. How can anyone truly sympathize with our achings? We’ll never really be able to walk about in another person’s skin as Atticus Fitch suggested. Our experiences, our histories and capabilities are far too diverse. When we are hurting, we have no ability to share the our precise pains. We can, however, receive the loving consolation of a family’s embrace.
In this way, as in so many others, Jack isn’t all that different than the rest of us. He wants us to feel what he’s feeling, but he settles for a whispered assurance that we see him. He wants somebody to understand him. But gracious as he is, he settles for me.