Feb 02, 2012 0 Share

The Mystery of the Fleeting Expression

The author and her brother close-up and smiling for camera.
Photo by Donna Fischer

While I didn't mean for my last column to foreshadow the future, it's fitting to say that Willie and I crossed a bridge this holiday season. When my husband and I went to New Jersey to visit family last month, we brought gifts for a belated Christmas celebration. Thanks to the delay, I had time to ponder a gift for Willie. I wanted something thoughtful, not mass-produced. Something unique, like him. 

In the end, I decided to purchase two pieces of artwork from Justin Canha. First, I selected a “Snow White and the Seven Dwarves” illustration because it reminded me of the time when Willie unexpectedly assigned character roles to each member of our family. His casting choices were a window into his inner world; Willie was Happy (or Grumpy, depending on mood), Mom was Bashful, Dad was Doc, and me? I was Snow White, an honor I never could have anticipated. 

For the second picture, I phoned Willie to ask about his favorite Disney film. With little hesitation, he replied, “’The Little Mermaid!’” That reply made my choice easy: a drawing of Ariel with Flounder and Sebastian by her side. The two pictures arrived together, and my husband and I marveled at the level of detail in each one. 

When the time came to give presents, however, I felt nervous; what if Willie didn't enjoy the drawings? Would high-definition TV make the illustrations seem quaint or uninteresting? 

Once we'd assembled in the family room with my parents, I called to Willie, saying, “I have a surprise for you!” His eyebrows raised; he seemed curious. With the drawings behind my back, I turned the gift-giving into a game, quizzing my brother. 

“Willie,” I said, “What's the movie with Happy, Grumpy, and Doc in it?” 

“’Snow White and the Seven Dwarves!’” he answered. His tone of voice implied, “That one was too easy!” 

“Well, since you liked that movie, I hope you'll like this!” With that, I pulled out the framed drawing. My parents clapped, and Willie laughed. He held the picture close, examining all the details. I asked him to name the characters for me, and he did, but then he turned to go. 

“Wait, Will! We have another one for you.” He paused, his stance impatient, but still attentive. “Do you remember when I asked you what your favorite Disney movie was? Do you remember what movie you said?” 

He paused, brow furrowing in concentration. “That's ... that's ... “The Little Mermaid!” he said, after a moment's deliberation. 

“Yes! Perfect,” I said. “And that's why I got you ... this one!” I pulled out the second drawing with a flourish. 

And I'll never forget the look that moved across his face. His features shifted into an expression I couldn't remember seeing before: a crooked smile, a softening of the eyes. It was fleeting, but it was so wonderful and unexpected that I gasped to see it. “You like it!” I said. And Willie said, “Yes. I like it.” And with that, he dashed out, pictures in hand, as is his way. 

I've had some time to ponder that expression since, and the closest I can come to categorizing it is to say that he was touched.  

When I think about Willie's life, I sometimes forget that his growth does not happen in a vacuum, that we become ourselves in relationship. Whether we're on the spectrum or not, our capacity for change is, in some ways, dependent upon who walks beside us on our journey. What my parents and I do, what Willie's teachers and classmates do … all of it matters, in more ways than we know. 

As Dr. Darold Treffert said in our recent interview: “In watching caregivers over the last few decades, I've witnessed the power of care and love and concern ... I've learned as much about that as about synapses and neurons.” He spoke with conviction, as though what he'd witnessed in families and support teams was more miraculous than all the amazing things he's discovered about the human brain. And having witnessed the mystery of the fleeting expression on Willie's face, I can't help but agree.