Anthony Esolen on the Divine Music of an Autistic Son
The vain imagination of man, that factory of idols, hums along. Somewhere in its shabby basement stands the laboratory wherein parents will soon select their children, pasting their chromosomes together, falling before the nothingness of “choice.” What sorrow for the world will be bred, the Lord knows. For there it will not be a matter of choosing up sides at the sandlot, with the last little ones waiting until someone says, to their relief, “I pick you.”
There the choice is for existence itself. And, if I may press the metaphor, many a poor fellow like the one young man I love most in the world, my son David, will be left standing outside the fence, looking in—to the terrible impoverishment of our lives.
“What’s this one?” I asked him, clanking my knife against the side of a wine bottle. He hardly looked up; too busy munching a snack.
“There’s more than one note,” he said, and sang them out, testing them for accuracy. “C and C sha-a-arp.”
I plinked out that discord on the piano in the other room. Sure enough.
“How about this?” I followed it up, playing a chord in the third octave above middle C.
“D and A,” he sang.
It took him a moment longer. “G sharp and A sharp,” he said.
Davey has never been taught to do that. Had we tried to engineer him into musical genius, we would surely have failed. Nor was he ever taught, at five, to draw pictures of computer keyboards, complete with cross-hatching and trapezoids tapering to a handsomely eccentric vanishing point. Nor how to take computers apart with screwdrivers and put them back in order, cobbling together spare parts salvaged from machines left on the side of the road.
We teach my son at home, but almost everything of consequence that he has learned he has picked up as it were by grace, and not by our poor effort. What he can do and what he cannot do both testify to what man’s pride and his ordinariness obscure. Davey’s life is a miracle.
That includes his reading. When he was six and ready to begin kindergarten (he didn’t speak till he was well past his third birthday), I prayed every night that by the end of the school year he might be able to read one of those old Golden storybooks, with pictures of fuzzy animals and few words. By November he was poring over computer manuals and magazines, without benefit of phonics.
We have watched him, in answer to prayer, make other leaps that stagger the imagination. And we have waited, often with less patience than resignation, as he has taken forever to learn to do what most of the world finds easy, like tell time from an analog clock, or shake hands. There was a time when he could tell you how old Taunton was if it was founded in 1764, but not how many fingers and toes he had all together.
My son is somewhere on what they call the “autism” spectrum. That name was brought to the popular consciousness about fifty years ago, by the delicately sympathetic movie David and Lisa, a story of an autistic genius whose love, itself a miracle, helps to cure a young woman so traumatized that she can no longer speak.
Such people were called autistic because, like that young man before he discovered someone needier than he, they seemed to dwell within their own universes, unable to forge friendships. Or perhaps I should rather say, unable to pick up the easy acquaintances without which an ordinary daily life is hardly possible.
We have been fortunate in this regard. Since we have kept Davey at home rather than sending him to school, he has managed to make a few friends—read that sentence again carefully. The boys come to his birthday parties, take him under their wings at the playground, and talk to him, God bless them, about computers, their hardware and software, their apparatus and their displays and their many technicians who know not their right hand from their left.
No Devil’s Way Out
Emotional detachment? Never have I met a child less able than Davey to understand, at a glance or after an hour of thinking about it, what someone else might be feeling. A sigh or a tear or a sad laugh or a peaceful smile comes to him hieroglyphically. Eventually, with encouragement, he can puzzle them out.
But it is disconcerting to know that, unless the Lord who made the deaf to hear and the mute to speak should will the miracle, it is not likely that Davey will ever really know what his father or his mother loved deeply, or feared, or longed for. That particular bond of understanding which parents take for granted, we will miss.
Yet, as if by compensation, I have never met anyone, child or adult, who so warmly loves people, even a grownup who is too important and busy to recognize the love. Whenever one of my former students comes to the house to visit, Davey will greet him and corral him up to the attic to show him the slaughter he has made of philistine computers. For the rest of the visit, hours or days as the case may be, he will tend to stray off unless we call him back into our world; yet when the time comes for the friend to leave, he will weep real tears.
It is a curious blessing, then, his limitation in the language of social intercourse; words break down no walls for him, nor build them up. “Davey is a profoundly good boy,” said a priest and family friend. “It is impossible for him to lie.” He was right; when it comes to lying, Davey’s tongue is tied. He cannot do it.
Therefore he cannot feign emotion. He cannot do what the rest of us more ordinary autists do all the time: stand at the door, bidding farewell, while counting the minutes, and reckoning up what we will do with the rest of the day once the friend has left.
Nor can he be a Pharisee, then; but his attacks of scrupulosity are frightening to behold. Some people tithe mint and cumin for the glory of saying they have done so. Davey, whose universe is a child’s, populated by things wondrous and unfathomable and gigantic, must worry about mint that grows a hundred feet high and cumin stacked all the way up the silo.
He once nearly spoiled his summer with an unappeasable worry that he had violated the arcana of copyright law. Those license agreements that software companies append to their products, which most of us, imitating our lawmakers, sign without reading, Davey had read and studied and committed to memory.
We could not give him the devil’s way out. “Everybody does it” makes no sense to a boy who cannot do what everybody does, like read the hands of a clock, and who can do what almost nobody does, like sing a named note on command, or teach himself to type with all ten fingers, or draw a machine in double perspective, or inform near strangers about the details of the operating systems they used when he last saw them, five years ago.
No, he could not bend the truth. By comparison the rest of us looked like professional liars; and we were justly abashed.
“Be ye holy,” says Jesus, “even as your heavenly Father is holy.” The ordinary autist, I mean one of us ordinary fellows, a person who thinks all too much of himself even during a friendly chat or lovemaking or prayer, will put on devotional airs, if he has such an inclination. Not my son. Yet he has a soul ordered simply for Christ.
In his case, you do not have to peel away the superficies of habit or social consciousness to arrive at some kernel of devotion. Davey either thinks nothing about God, as when he is thinking about circuitry and software, or he plunges into the mystery. It is in his childlike Christian life as it is in his making of friends: He either does not know you at all, or he loves you.
Davey has always been as eager to know about God as is any young man on his way to join the army of Christ. “Has God already created the souls of all the people in the world, the ones that lived a long time ago and the ones who aren’t even born yet?” “Could God change something that has already happened, and make it so that it didn’t happen?” Such questions he asked when he was eight. He is the buck private in my small platoon of souls for whom I pray unceasingly. Unless I am much mistaken, if anybody’s likely to fall by the wayside, it’s the sergeant, not the private.
For a year or two, when he was more than a toddler and still not talking, my wife and I vigorously denied that there was anything wrong. Or so she did, seeing with a mother’s keen vision the hidden wonder; but I would lie awake at night, brooding about it, sometimes weeping, pretending that I felt sorry for Davey, but really feeling sorry for myself.
That’s understandable, the sympathetic reader may say. True, it is understandable. Here I was given a jewel to care for, a human being of incomparable worth, as all human beings are, but this one unusually innocent, and as odd as the shiest of woodpeckers drumming deep in the forest.
And for all that, at times I felt grief, not gratitude. It is as if I had childishly stamped my foot before my Maker—little understanding that from the point of view of the Lord, it was I who dwelt in my own universe, and Davey who was sent to break me from that shell.
Thank the Lord for that son of mine, and my daughter Jessica, and my wife Debra, who are the family I “choose,” because God has chosen them all for me. Had Davey been like every other son, I’d have crushed him under the burden of my ego; while now instead he does for me and for many of our friends what nobody ever has the good sense to choose for himself. He abashes us by his innocence.
As for what the future holds, who knows? Maybe he will be married someday and have children, as he very much wants to do, and own a business manufacturing (of course) computers. Maybe he will live for many years with his mother and father, or maybe he will take an apartment of his own. Maybe, as he is so easily likable, he will draw close to true friends who will help him negotiate the rough waters of meeting people and getting along.
I pray for those good things, but not with the same urgency as once before. Better to pray that at the end of our long trek he will meet the Father who always loved him best, and that he will be joined at that destination by his mother and his sister, and an old man on bad knees, bringing up the rear. Nor let there be any end to the naming of notes, when the friends in that land break into song. •
Anthony Esolen is a professor at Magdalene College of the Liberal Arts in Warner, New Hampshire, and the author of many books, including Life Under Compulsion (ISI Books), Real Music: A Guide to the Timeless Hymns of the Church (Tan, with a CD), Out of the Ashes: Rebuilding American Culture (Regnery), and The Hundredfold: Songs for the Lord (Ignatius Press, 2019). He has also translated Dante's Divine Comedy (Random House). He is a senior editor of Touchstone.