In Isaac Bashevis Singer’s, “Gimpel the Fool,” the protagonist— a man who chooses faith over deception— is called a fool precisely because he believes what he is told, and as a result, is taken advantage of by wife and neighbors alike for most of his life. This short story, which I haven’t read for years, occurs to me now as I recognize in my son, who is diagnosed as moderately autistic, a lack of guile comparable to Gimpel. Just yesterday my husband went to our son’s school to observe, and he saw this firsthand when a kindergarten classmate recognized innocence and sought to make a fool of it.
It happened at lunchtime, and it seemed as though it might be a regular occurrence. The students sat at picnic tables in the yard with lunches spread before them, and as my son would turn to look at something or talk to another classmate, this Elka would reach into his lunchbox to steal his food. Then she would slip his cheese and strawberries into her mouth and hide the chewing with her hands. Regardless of her questionable character, this witnessed incident reminds me that my son—who is pure and without malice—will, for a time being, be at risk from those who get great pleasure in the betrayal of trust.
This is one way that my son’s autism manifests: in a strange kind of beauty born from the clean nature of his spirit, where anything smaller than him is “cute,” where he is unable to lie, where he sticks up for his classmates, where he is dazzled by the objects of the world he calls “so beautiful.” He is possessed of a deep sensitivity so that a song can make him well up, so that the fear of being a bad person can make him weep, so that good fortune in the form of a new treasure can make him teary.
He is also fueled by a weird energy, which at times reminds me of the way stars explode. In therapy they have introduced my son to compression vests, and an aunt writes to us about weighted blankets; all of this to say that his energy is unbridled. It flies from him and pings those he comes in contact with, so the controlled world wants to wrap him up lest he goes supernova on us.
It is no wonder he is described as “bright” by teachers and therapists. He reads, writes, and does above grade-level math. His syntax is idiosyncratic. He uses words and sentences oddly, at times like he feeds his thoughts through the Jabberwocky translator. He is learning to self-regulate because he struggles with impulse control, which may relate to why he loves the metallic rightness of robots.
Autism Spectrum Disorder, in case you didn’t know, is diagnosed through observation. There is no blood test. You can’t scan for it. Genetic tests won’t pick it up. A bunch of experts stare at your child and decide based on how he or she interacts with the world. And these children are measured against a baseline designated as “normal.” Every slight correlation is designated as causation, and we are encouraged to avoid them all lest we bring more children into the world like my son who is supposedly cursed with this diagnosis of difference. All these children who stand apart from others, they become the other. Then as a culture we become struck with fear of the unknown.
We know our son does not flap and rock. Our son is not voiceless. He is not a cold genius capable of theoretical physics but incapable of loving. He is not destined to shoot up a school. He does not have violent tantrums. He is not an idiot savant. He is not abnormally focused on one interest alone. He makes eye contact. What this boy reminds us of every day is that autism does not manifest as a stereotype. Every individual on the spectrum is a person in his or her own right, and even if autism is more severe in some kids— which it is and so must be acknowledged— they have the capacity to teach us not just about individuality and compassion but also about what kinds of magic can be hidden behind the curtain of ASD. But to access that magic, first you must shed all of your preconceptions about autism.
Unfortunately, what autism can also teach us is that our communities are full of Elkas who prey on purity, who hate it for its grace. News stories come and go about teenagers abusing autistic “friends”— the boy dumped with urine in a mock ALS ice bucket challenge, the boy sexually abused by girls who took pictures with their phones. These caveats appear in news feeds, and I worry for the safety of my boy who knows nothing of betrayal or cruelty. But I cannot make a hothouse flower of him. The world needs him as much as he needs it, and as he grows into it I don’t doubt that he will come to understand that trust is to be meted out. Even Gimpel, the ultimate schlemiel, learned this and still chose goodness.
Author’s Note: In the weeks since the composition of this essay, the child psychologist who is part of my son’s therapy group has suggested that, perhaps, my son is not autistic after all. Which means that he may exist in the limbo of undiagnosed difference, or he may acquire a new label. This means that with the swipe of a pen, a child can go from stigmatized to otherwise. What this reinforces is both that the diagnostics of soft science are not perfect and that many of us, one way or another, exist in the limbo of undiagnosed difference. And this only serves to remind us that the more we try to define normal, the more the definition dissolves into a puddle of subjectivity. Regardless, I still choose Gimpel over the liars and cheats that populate Singer’s story. And, given the choice, I would still take my son as-is over some homogenized amalgamation of what constitutes correct boyness.
Sonia Greenfield is a poet, essayist, and fiction writer who calls Los Angeles home, where she lives with her husband, son, and feral dog. Her poetry has appeared in a variety of publications including The Massachusetts Review, The Antioch Review, Rattle, and the 2010 Best American Poetry, and her chapbook, Circus Gravitas, is available from Finishing Line Press. Her latest piece of fiction can be found in the Bellevue Literary Review, and her latest essays can be found on Role Reboot. She teaches writing at USC.