As the Christian world approaches the most holy of days, I remember two young autistic boys and their unraveling, perhaps retelling, of the Easter Story.
Jacob and Will began their communication journey from similar points but different capabilities. One had almost no language; one extreme verbosity. Both lacked conversational ability and a paucity of response to facial expression, prosody and other nonverbal information. While their parents replicated with us a passage similar to that of parents who guide their typically developing children, the boys had their own work to do— to become eager apprentices to their parents. By the time they entered this dyad, Will and Jacob were resilient, flexible and passionate about their friendship. When the following conversation took place they had begun to organize for themselves the time they spent together.
Will and Jacob began their dyad on this spring day by pretending they were variously Charlie Brown and “Puppermint Putty”, playing off the Peanuts, Easter Beagle video. There were no props. Their little minds fed off each other with nimble ferocity. And then, in synchronous response to some imperceptible signal, their play took on a different tone and their voices transitioned from playfully familiar to seriously grave.
Will: Pretending he’s on fire. “Jacob, help me. It’s an emergency”
Jacob: Dials 911, pretending his hand is a phone. “Is the hospital? Will’s on fire.”
Jacob puts down the phone and rushes to the hospital where he is now a surgeon. He pretends to operate on Will.
Jacob: very sadly: “Will, You’re dead”
Will: mirroring Jacob’s expression: “You’re too late”
As children’s play goes:
Jacob: “You’ll feel better in the morning”
Jacob: Picks up the phone and calls G_D. He pauses at the end of each sentence listening carefully to the person on the other end.
“Come get Will, he’s dead”
“OK, I know what to do.”
Will: Looks up at Jacob and asks, “What are you doing here?”
Jacob: “I’m Jesus”. He poses with his arms outstretched and in a low serious voice says ,“Go to New York and see the others.”
Will: “Where’s G_d”
Jacob: Points up and gets Will to G_d.
Will: Will picks up the telephone to talk to G_D. “I want to go back”
As if listening carefully he yells, “Going to hell? I better call my mom.”
The boys return to the same theme.
Will is dead again.
Jacob calls Jesus who tells him to “Go get Will”
Jacob, assuming a different role, “Hello Will I’m Jesus. Your hands aren’t burned any more. Get up. Go to the city and see your mom and dad.”
Will does not cooperate and continues to pretend he’s dead.
Jacob pretends to pour water on him.
Jacob shouts, “He’s alive! He’s alive”
The boys reverse roles.
Jacob is dead.
Will walks in and says “I’m Jesus, It’s at heaven.” Then he jumps on Jacob and pretends to resuscitate him by pushing his hands into his chest.
Jacob jumps up healed.
The reason we remember with clarity moments such as these is because we sense we are traveling through the cusp of a true awakening of minds that have been disconnected and static. Bearing witness to this free-form type of play assures us that spring not only comes in the temporal world but to the world of autism as well.
Where They Are Now
It has been 14 or 15 years since I’ve seen Jacob and Will. During the writing of this blog I touched based with their parents:
Will is grown up. He enjoys traveling independently, plays the guitar and drives solo. He is a sensitive, good friend to the many guys he hangs out with. A master of timing and comedic phrases, there seems to be a stand-up career in his future.
Jacob is grown up too, and attends college where he lives in a dorm and manages his life for himself. Jacob has a strong faith in God and is in leadership to “Do Hard Things” which he regularly does for himself. An accomplished musician, Jacob participated in Honor Orchestra of America, and improvised on vibes in jazz band in high school. He continues his music career in college. He is sensitive to others. And, yes, he too is driving.