Saturday, March 1, 2008

Portrait of the artist in black and white

You are born into the world. You are perfect. Nobody knows what you are thinking. You are treasured, the mother and father show you off to everyone, they take your photograph and send it to the others, who all agree that yes, you are perfect. You are celebrated. Plans are made for your future. Maybe you will be a surgeon, look at the long fingers. Maybe you will be a judge, taking in everything, attentive and pensive.

You grow. Now the smiles have dimmed, the corners of the mouths less strained by joy, the eyes less sparkling. Worried. On the phone, they talk about not talking yet, but hopeful, but worried, but still in normal range. What’s the word for this? Parameters. You rearrange the alphabet blocks, taking in everything.

They buy you lots of books. They show you the pictures but you are mesmerized by letters, the words. They laugh. They don’t laugh when your sister reads. You are the funny one. Maybe you’ll be a comedian.

You are getting older now. Everyone agrees that it’s okay. You are perfect. Perfect as you are. Somehow, this sounds different. Sometimes at night, when she thinks you are asleep, the mother leans over you and whispers. Talk, please just talk. But this may be a dream.

School starts. Everyone agrees that you are special. Maybe you’ll be a clerk in a store. Maybe you’ll be a dishwasher. You talk now, but it’s too late, and something about your talking is…just wrong. It seems no one knows (still) what you are thinking. Words seem to make it worse. You try other ways.

At dinner there is salt and pepper. You move them close together. Together. You are becoming seasoned. See how the opposites define the set, complement each other. The contrast is pleasing, the variety purposeful. The mother and father exchange a familiar look. More worried, less hopeful. Will it never end, this lining things up?

How was school today? You turn the pepper upside down. This is how you feel, you are being slowly emptied. What is the word, what is the word for this? Go to your room, the father says. You feel broken now, and you sweep your hand across the table, send the pepper flying, crashing into the wall. This is acting out. A behavior. Go to your room.

You go. You draw now, salt and pepper shakers, hundreds of them. This goes on for months, for years and you are good at it. People shake their heads, this is called perseveration. You don’t care anymore, you are the best salt and pepper shaker artist anywhere. Someday you will be celebrated, your salt and pepper drawings in galleries, each “S” and “P” rendered carefully, each glass cylinder three quarters full, as clear and reflective as they ever hoped you’d be.


  1. As a parent of two autistic children this post really moved me, thank you.

  2. I have commented on other blogs and forums that I think that the word perseveration is incorrect in a very specific way. Maybe it is just me but I am changing what I do with each "pseudo-repeat". In math this is called iteration and it is used to arrive at a conclusion or a proof. I am progressing by steps and not taking a wholesale jump the way so many people do. It has always seemed to me to be the obviously right way to proceed with my thoughts or actions around a problem.

    I want to ask if that is how it is for you. I expect that the salt shaker pictures were each different in important ways for you.


  3. When I was born, the world was in black and white, colour was for the rich only, it came in only during the late seventies for the plebs, although in the more affluent transatlantic world it had spread earlier, hence the only colour pictures of me before the late seventies were taken by my Uncle on a visit from Canada.

    There is a huge cultural significance and semiotic of the notion of colour in imagery such that it has penetrated popular cultural at subtle levels and embedded itself in memes you would not even recognise unless you were skilled in the deconstruction of the media.

  4. This brought tears to my eyes. It's beautiful, touching, and heartbreaking all at once. This piece should be mandatory reading for all parents of autistic children.

  5. Skeeterhawk,

    I see what you mean about perseveration. Some of mine are like that. This story is more or less fiction, with some autobiographical elements. I don't draw salt shakers, but I draw brick walls and yes, every one is unique. I suppose this is true for most of what are called perseverations, that there are many subtle improvisations, that the steps are just very small or seem that way to others.

    Thanks for the comment. It really got me thinking about another way to frame the idea of "insistence on sameness." It seems to apply to a lot of things, though not to the need to have that one certain table by the window at the fast food place.

  6. I don't worry about my son's perseveration. In many cases it makes him excel and learn... But I do relate to the worry about the speech delay and his potential. However I don't talk about this in front of him as if he doesn't understand or is not in the room. I know he's listening to everything, even though he might not process everything or not understand every word.

    We as parents have to be sensitive to our children's feelings. Negative things that we hear our parents say about us as kids will stick for a long time and hurt our self-esteem.

    On the other hand, parents cannot be criticized because they're afraid their child will never talk or be able to function independently in society. It's part of being a parent, to worry, to want the best for your kid. You just have to be careful not to show your anxiety and fear so it won't hurt your child's feelings.

  7. Is that what it is, the drawing of the same thing over and over? What is she trying to say? Sometimes it just makes me crazy...but we don't stop her. Some of her art is incredible.

  8. This was sad to me. I really hope my daughter feels that we truly love her for who she is. I don't want her to look back and feel that she is not enough. That she is being emptied.

  9. Wow... this really helped me see into my son's head. Thanks, Bev.

  10. Beautiful. This says it all.

  11. My eyes are full of tears and my heart full of gratitude. What I am reading through this website resonates with me in ways I don't yet fully understand. I'll tell you one thing, though: I have felt vaguely guilty for not being one of those "good" parents who pursues all available therapies and treatments. What a relief! I do love my son for who he is. (He was "diagnosed" at 7 and is now 14.) Life with him and for him is not always easy, but I don't want to change who he is. It's good to get new perspectives. Thank you.

  12. When I was born, the heroin was still in my blood stream. It came out and into a half body cast I went, in order to correct hip dysplasia. I grew inside the casts, got horrible scars from it, and I was a quite fussy baby, according to the orphanage records. They "treated" fussy babies with phenobarbitol in those years.

    My son has a pale shadow of the troubles I have: sensory integration disorder, they call it. I find it interesting to see the differences between us.


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