Through Another's Eyes
“California, here I come! En route to speak at the (sold out) Kern Autism Network-Autism Society Affiliate Chapter annual conference.” I posted this status on Facebook, alongside a photo of my brother and me. My message continued, “If (ok, more like when!) I get nervous and start to wonder why I am flying across the country to speak to 400-plus people, I will remember this face, and smile. I will remember that my brother cast me as Snow White, and that Disney princesses do not hide in corners. I will remember what really matters, and that will see me through.”
Those words came true in ways I didn't foresee. The journey was strenuous, and I had to tap inner reserves of patience and flexibility that I didn't know I possessed. The car rental van never showed up at the airport, so I had to make new arrangements on the spot. Then came the traffic. Though I grew up in New Jersey and lived in Washington, DC for five years, I'd never seen (or envisioned) anything like the packed five-lane highway in Los Angeles. Then again, I also never imagined that the Angeles National Forest would be so beautiful. I drove through the mountains at sunset, and the views took my breath away. I wanted to pull over and take pictures, but there wasn't a second to lose. The itinerary I'd chosen was very tight on time. It was not the wisest decision, but there were no good options for flights, only awful and slightly-less-awful. As such, I had to keep re-routing my thoughts. When they strayed into self-punishing, What was I thinking?! territory, I gently brought them back to, I did the best I could at the time.
Fast-forward to the next day, when I approached the podium sleep-deprived but still energized. As I looked out across the large room, it seemed that every seat was occupied. I thought, Guess that this is what a sold-out, 400-plus attendee event looks like! And as I spoke, everything that was not the talk fell away. It didn't matter that I was tired and nervous; all that matters was that I told stories. It was going well; I knew that I was speaking calmly and clearly. Yet there was so much going on in my weary mind that I experienced a strange disconnect. I had to stay so focused on what I was doing that my brain was unable to interpret the meaning of certain sights and gestures. For example, when I glimpsed several people wiping their eyes, I experienced deep (albeit momentary) confusion. I honestly did not understand what was happening. The uncertainty was troubling. Why were these individuals swiping at their faces, reaching for tissues? And then it hit me: They're crying … because they are moved by what I'm saying. Oh.
Now, I don't know what it's like to be on the autism spectrum, to see the world through another's eyes. But I believe that perhaps that moment was a small window into my brother Willie's life experience. As an individual with autism, it's probable that he undergoes a similar sort of deliberate mental processing in order to arrive at conclusions that many of us come to spontaneously. It's possible that he needs to add up all the clues—she's wiping her face, she's rubbing her eyes, she's reaching for a tissue—before he comes to the conclusion that others come to instantaneously (she's crying because she's moved). How bizarrely beautiful that I received an opportunity to know what that feels like.
In turn, when reporter Casey Christie from The Bakersfield Californian approached me afterward and said, “I just have one quick question—how old are you?” I almost couldn't answer her. How old was I? Laughing, I said, “You know, I have no idea!” Catching my breath, I paused, then responded with the correct answer. I could have carried on speaking for another hour, but I had trouble registering emotional states and answering factual questions. It didn't bother me, though. I felt like I was flying long before I boarded the plane, soaring like the eagle I saw in the Angeles forest on my way home.