Talking the Talk with my Son

ELITE Magazine
Sun-Times News Group
June, 2005

“Talk to your kids” is what various kindly, good-looking TV stars tell me with some regularity during commercial breaks as I fumble for the remote control.

I appreciate the sentiment, I really do, but with all due respect, I don’t think they know to whom they are speaking.

I’m the father of a severely autistic 19-year-old whose daunting list of can’ts—can’t leave the house alone, can’t go on a date, can’t do simple work unaided—includes the most disabling one of all, can’ converse. The Walker is quite possibly one of the most talked-to young men in our hemisphere—the offspring of an English teacher dad who (and I say this in all modesty) will not shut up—he’s unable to respond in a way that satisfies either himself or anybody else.

But he is verbal, flamboyantly so—a high-volume, enthusiastic communicator who requests, commands, asks questions, and makes comments in short, often puzzling statements. He’s incessantly trying to break through to the ever-chattering world of his family. His mother, his brother and I have come to know him as a normal teenager—handsome, charming, funny, friendly—whose autism works like some kind of nasty neurological scrambling device, his personal World War II enigma machine.

Sometimes, miraculously, this scrambler misfires and permits him beautiful and starling comments, form in the form of lines from songs, what I think of as small Conversation Supernovas that lave me floating on air because they remind me of the normal teenager behind autism’s screen.

But 99 percent of the time, his condition layers autism code over familiar father baffling teenager code for a maddening, dizzying, Byzantine effect:

Me: [pleasantly] “”Great. Let’s watch a movie.”

Walker: [shouting, roaring, actually] “No TV today! Computer!”

Me: [less pleasantly]    Walker: “OK. Go turn on your computer.”

Walker: “No ‘PUTER today!”

Me: [steam rising] “OK Walker. What do you really want?”

Walker: [quietly, smiling, index fingers in his ears, looking down] “In the parmesan shining.”

Me: [not comprehending but heroically keeping lid on] “Can you say that again, man, slower?”

Walker: [shouting again, laughing] “I want TV!”

Me: [never mind me]

My challenge as a father is to keep my perspective through this typical exchange because some very good things (in contrast with my own impatience) lie hidden here.:

1.)    His sense of humor, despite the popular misconception that people with autism have none; 2.) His deep emotional sensitivity to, and teenage manipulation of, his father’s emotions; 3.) His brave sense of himself as a person who will tray and try again to communicate something; 4.) His desire to speak to me, to get something, anything, going with me because he’s not really, in the tired phrase, “Locked in a world of his own.”

Keeping this kind of perspective on Walker is hard work  for me, for “conversing” like this goes against all my inbred ideas of how fathers and talk. My memories of growing up in the 1950s and ‘60s are a pleasant blur of talk, talk, talk with my own Dad holding forth and me asking quesitons.

Watching the Cubs with me in the basement on our black and white TV, my father would explain the basics of the game, the histories of the teams, the godlike moral superiority of the National League to the American. Delivering newspapers with him on Sunday mornings, we talked politics, religion, books, movies, his army and college experiences, and most memorably of all his own childhood.

Amazing! How was it that his life as a kid—his hobbies, school misadventures, problems with friends, and dreams of the future—bore such a close and fascinating resemblance to my own? I thought, What terrific good luck! Implanted invisibly in my head was the idea: This is how it works. This is how sons and fathers grow together.

Inspired by my father, I too hold forth to Walker. Driving in the car with him beside me, I lecture, expostulate, expatiate and extol. Watching TV with him, I praise, pontificate, instruct, and needle. Walking and running with him through parks and along busy sidewalks, I tell him of my own childhood, my daily ups and downs, and most of all, of my own enjoyment of the scenes, the weather, the faces of people along the way.

But he never replies, never asks a question. He lets me hang out there like a chump with my monologues, never letting on how much he’s taking in. Though I try to carry on, knowing that at least some this chatter registers, it’s easy for me for long stretches to lose heart.

It was during one such period that I was holding forth to both Walker and his brother in the kitchen. Dave was complaining to me about how Walker gets on his nerves, so I drew on my vast reserves of wisdom and intoned about how all brothers get on each other’s nerves and how my brothers, Uncles Pete and Uncle Larry , used to drive me crazy in just the same way.

Suddenly Walker is convulsed with laughter, leans back in his chair, and shouts rather than sings a line from a Neil Young song that I know he hadn’t listened to in years: “OLD MAN TAKE A LOOK AT MY LIFE I’M A LOT LIKE YOU.”

Yes! Conversation supernova! One brilliant enough to keep the old man talking for a long time to come.

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