A Broken Heart


On May 2, 2018, I posted an article titled, The Tyranny of Conformity, in which I describe the struggle of an autistic man to obtain a Driver’s Permit. ‘John’ comprehensively knows the  answers to 100 driving questions in driving manuals, including that of the DMV’s Driver’s Manual. He is also able to pantomime the answers as he answers them. For example, if he is asked to do so, he can simultaneously speak an answer while using his hands to depict the meaning of the answer: For a wordless road sign like “slippery when wet,” ‘John’ uses his hands to represent snow, rain, and ice, and for good measure, holds on to an imaginary steering wheel while he sways from side-to-side to indicate the car is skidding. Yet, his quest for a driver’s license is on hold for a variety of reasons, none of which has to do with his ability to pass a DMV permit test.


But this article refers to my far deeper concern for him, especially in terms of his future. That concern has grown since our relationship as tutor and student has become a relationship that resembles that of a grandfather and his grandson.

On my part, I see myself as the father in the film titled Life is Beautiful, in which a father shields his son from the horrors of a Nazi concentration camp by pretending that he and his son are playing a game.

At twenty-five years of age, John is part man, part boy. When I interact with children, I enter into their world (as, in part, I often do with adults). From the beginning, I knew that to interact with John I needed to be two people: One, a loving grandfather who is irate because his grandson is stealing his cookies, and the other as myself when I speak to John about adult issues.  Playing the grandfather, I change my manner and even my voice.  Like a child, John goes along with my game. But a slight smile that John is unable to suppress betrays his understanding that we are just playing a game. When he comes to study or just visit me, I stop him at the door and, as the grandfather, sternly ask him:  “Are you going to be bad or good?” He cheerfully answers, “Goooood!” “Did you come to make trouble?”  He emphatically answers, “Nooooo!”

“Okay, now you may come in.”

On the Fourth of July about three years ago, I was sitting at my window watching neighbors celebrating the holiday. The aroma of grilled chicken, hot dogs, and hamburgers was deliciously pungent. Neighbors across the street gave John a shish kabob packed to the brim. Before John began to devour it, he came to my window, held the skewer vertically in front of him, and brandished a smile of total contentment.  I responded with cheerful laughter. But inside, I couldn’t dismiss the disheartening thought that this is the best my ‘grandson’ can look forward to in his life.

Like the father in Life is Beautiful, I shield John from the truth about negative events and circumstances he experiences. John is as innocent as the boy in Life is Beautiful. The boy’s father knows that he must not reveal the truth to his son. I know that in certain circumstances I must do the same for John. The most disturbing of those circumstances is the ambivalence associated with his potential ownership and use of a car. I’ve become entangled in a dilemma that was initiated by a misunderstanding a year or two ago when John brought me a Driver’s License manual.

I thought his father wanted me to teach John how to drive. So, within the parameter of tutoring him about the rules of the road and having him sit in the passenger seat as I demonstrated driving ‘live,’ I tutored John about driving skills. In the course of that tutorage, John’s expectations grew, fueled by the knowledge that a car has been donated to him and waiting for him in a relative’s garage! Coupled with all that, there is my empty garage which I’ve promised John he would have at his disposal when he gets his driving license.

On the surface, those circumstances seem unimportant. But underlying them is the prevailing pathos of John’s life as an autistic man. A part of the autistic spectrum compels him to repeatedly  ask the same question. I believe that his repetition is caused by the need for reassurance. For instance, when John asks me a question, he phrases it so that there can be only one answer: the one he was promised would be the answer. And his questions are often implied rather than directly expressed as a question. He’ll say, “I have a bike…” pauses, and expects me to say, “…and a car.”  During the pause, his expectation is clearly written on his face. Or, he’ll say, “I’ll get my license when…pauses, and expects me to say, …”when you pass the road test.” He’ll also directly ask questions: “Where will I put my car?” I respond, “In my garage.”

It saddens me when I cheer along with him while knowing that it’s a very, very long shot for him to get a driver’s license and park his car in my garage. I hope he doesn’t think I failed him when I die.

When John phones people they often don’t answer. He waits a very long time for them to pick up their phones before he sadly gives up. I always answer quickly. And when John calls me at a time when I can’t pick up my phone, I call him back as soon as I can.  He has a guarantee that one way or the other I will always respond to his call. I want him to remember that there was someone in his life who always fully responded to his calls or messages. He calls me every night before he goes to bed.  At the end of every phone conversation, I wait until he says ‘goodbye’ before I hang up.

John visits me often and we tell each other about our daily experiences, have soup together in the winter and ice-cream in the summer, and have our private jokes, one of which is bitter-sweet and encapsulates the essence of our relationship. I have a niece who sometimes calls me late at night. I’ve told John that if he gets a busy signal when he calls at night, it’s my niece who is on the phone and that her calls are lengthy. So, he should not wait until she hangs up, but just go straight to bed.

When I first asked John, “What do you do if you call me late at night and you get a busy signal?,” John answered, “Go straight to bed!” Lately, he has not waited for me to ask him that question. Instead, he more and more elaborately blurts out, “When I get a busy signal, I go straight to bed!” He gets very excited as he says that line and anticipates my response. When he delivers that ‘punch line,’ I laugh every time as though I hear the line for the first time. But while I laugh, I hold back tears.

Despite the popular belief that autistic people have no compassion John put his arm around my shoulder when I returned from the hospital after a bout with pneumonia. Apparently, he’s as concerned about me as much as I am about him. I believe that compassion is the greatest of all emotions.  It’s my good fortune to know my friend, ‘John.’

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