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Authors: Donna Williams

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BOOK: Somebody Somewhere
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I tugged her arm quickly. She seemed stunned momentarily out of her apparent self-hypnosis and glared at me with her war face. I looked calmly into her war face and smiled to myself. “Hello mirror,” I said silently.

Back and forth we tugged each other. Eventually, of her own accord, she jumped off the step and into the pool holding my hand. She paddled a few feet or so—a terrified expression on her face—looking up at me as if for confirmation that it was all okay and that she would survive. Then she looked intently into the water and panic came over her. I tugged quickly on her arm and she looked up at me suddenly. There was a vague trace of a smile.

I let her lead me back to the step. She stood on it tapping herself and surveying the monster she had almost conquered. And yet the monster was not the pool. The monster was autism—an invisible monster within, a monster of self-denial.

Holding her hand we went through the tug-of-war on the step again. She again decided to jump off. She was shaking violently and continued to try to get lost in the surface of the water for safety. In its bottomlessness she could find nothing but a source of further panic. In her fear, she became ill.

I continued to tug her out of her blind panic, and eventually she remained focused upon me as we paddled around the pool. As we came around again in the direction of the steps, Jody was smiling to herself in full view of the two workers sitting by the edge of the pool. Her eyes were alive.


It was the end of the first day at the school. Parents came for some of the children. A bus came for others.

The bus driver ran the respite house where I'd been offered the work. She looked surprised to see me and looked at the worker who'd hired me with the same surprised look. Perhaps she wondered how I could possibly manage to work with such “difficult” children?

In some ways they were right, but these children were far less difficult for me to comprehend than many so-called normal children would have been. Was it possible that part of the reason these children seemed incomprehensible was simply because many people didn't know what it felt like to be like them?

Out of the blue came a few more days' work and an offer to come to the respite house and talk to the parents.

The extra days were outside the school, working with a twelve-year-old boy named Michael. He had to be picked up from home. Going to Michael's house with the worker who'd hired me, I was afraid of his parents' reaction. An autistic person working with another one would have been the last thing possible on their minds. Few people knew or imagined any autistic person to be that capable. Michael's parents turned out to be gentle, genuine, and caring people. They had five children altogether, including another of Michael's brothers who was also autistic.

Michael had a charming personality. He was big and as jolly as a nonverbal autistic person can be. Though his movements were big and loud, he had an air of gentleness and understanding about him.

As a child I had been echolalic and had had difficulty learning the purpose and significance of language. Michael didn't use spoken language at all. He had a vocabulary of several signs, mostly to do with his favorite topic and obsession—food.

Michael arrived at the school's holiday program he'd been accepted for. It was run at a regular local school and Michael was the only autistic child there.

Michael stood out from the other children. They were several years younger than he was and the fact that he was a very big twelve-year-old walking on the tips of his toes didn't help him blend in. Nevertheless, he seemed happy enough to be there.

Some of the other children were curious about Michael and why he had someone with him. They had only one teacher supervising the lot of them. I introduced them to Michael and tried to help them understand why he didn't speak to them and explained that he, nevertheless, understood them.

Michael walked around watching the children playing in small
groups. They threw balls to him. The balls hit him and dropped to the ground. The children called him over. Michael stood frozen to the spot.

I helped some of the children play simple games with him. I showed them how to build their games up step by step so he could understand them without floundering in the overwhelming pace of change.

I handed a ball back and forth with Michael, who seemed to be torn between shyly enjoying himself and trying to “disappear.”

I clapped and asked for the ball. Michael responded by letting it go. It rolled along his legs where he sat and rolled toward me. Nothing too deliberate. Nothing too direct. Can't let the mind know anybody's home. Can't afford the cost of overload. Can't risk the void of shutdown.

Step by step the game had been built up to the point that Michael was throwing the ball back and forth with me. Gradually I had managed to include two other children in a game of catch. Michael smiled to himself, alternating between looking at the kids and staring once again into nothingness.

Other children were skipping rope. Michael walked into their games again and again with the same apparently aimless wandering I had seen before in Robbie. It was clear that Michael wanted to join in but couldn't show it directly, even to himself. The other children became annoyed.

I found a rope for him. Without expression, excitement, or expectation, I helped him through the motions of skipping step by step. Michael got the gist of it and seemed fairly pleased with himself as he went around the grounds throwing the rope over his head and stepping over it as it landed in front of him.

Michael began to teach me. He took my hand, and my heart sank. I was afraid and yet curious as to why I didn't “disappear” when I was with him or Jack or Jody. I felt strangely safe and familiar with him. His touch had no expectation. He was almost as avoidant of it as I was.

He put my hand in front of his face, spat on it, and broke into
cheeky, secretive laughter. Michael seemed to think this was hilarious. At first I didn't.

Michael expanded on his game, making strings of sounds as he held my hand in front of his face: “K,k,k,b,b,b,t,t,t.” Suddenly it occurred to me that he must have had speech therapy. He wasn't spitting on my hand after all, he had been demonstrating the letter “p.” I chuckled quietly to myself thinking how irrational speech therapy must have seemed to him, some perverse game where he was taught to blow and spit upon the hands of a stranger. He had, at least, found entertainment value in what might otherwise have been a meaningless session where he was expected to make sounds without ever being told why. Even if he wanted to, who would know to explain all this to him? Who would know to explain why on earth he would want to use words according to his own value system? Who would even think he was listening or understanding when he found it too difficult to express his awareness, even to himself?

Together inside of a Hula Hoop, Michael and I went for a walk—with Michael leading. We stopped at the playground, climbed out, and played follow-the-leader until neither of us could tell who was the follower and who was the leader. We made musical patterns out of the sounds made by tapping various wooden beams and metal pipes, and filled in each other's tunes, composing. We went to the sink and played with the drink taps, splashing the water about.

Two girls came by chattering with each other. They shot a strange expression in our direction before detouring to play several feet away. Michael stood stock still like a shop mannequin. His smiling face grew solemn, his eyes stopped smiling. His fist came tensely up to his chest and he glared at me. In a loud, deep monotone, he hit himself with each syllable as he announced, “NOR-MAL.” I looked at the girls and looked back at him. “Yes…” I said, “Michael and Donna are NOR-MAL.”

had contacted one of the two people whose names I'd been given when I first visited the special-needs school. One was at a resource center for people like me. The guy who met me there talked for some time with me and reassured me that while most autistic people were not as capable as me, there were a few he'd known who were fairly capable. Then he asked me if I wanted any help. I looked at him like he was nuts. He suggested the name of someone. It was a Dr. Someone and in my books that spelled headshrinker. Oh shit, I thought. This guy thinks I'm crazy.

I had seen a psychiatrist for two years, from age seventeen to nineteen. It did plenty for teaching me to act and think like her, and it got me back into education, but it didn't help me get “real.” Willie went from prison warden to shrink. Carol went from street kid to sophisticate. And both learned to obsess on the topic I was encouraged to: family problems. That psychiatrist had been the most well-adjusted, caring mirror reflection I'd ever become, but it was still part of running from the self. Shrinks were something to hide behind and that was not what I thought I needed.

“No thanks,” I said hurriedly. “I don't need any help.” “He's not a psychiatrist,” said the man, as though he had read my mind. “He's an educational psychologist. He has worked for a long time with autistic people.” I looked at him cautiously, took the number, and left.

A week or so later, I rang the resource center again. “I spoke to Dr. Marek since speaking to you,” said the man running the place. “He said he would be interested to meet you.” I had no desire whatsoever to meet anybody unless he or she was going to lead me to the people I thought I'd find belonging with. Finally I figured that if anyone would know some, this doctor-person might. I called the number.

Dr. Theodore Marek had heard I had written a book and that it was going to be published. He assured me he wasn't a shrink and said he might be able to help me and that he wanted to do some tests. I figured that “helping me” meant he'd help me find the other people “like me.” As for the tests, no reasons sprung to mind why I didn't
want to do them. But then no reasons sprung to mind why I did. The word “test” just hung about upon the air meaning not much at all.


The date arrived for the appointment with the doctor. The staircase wound up floor by floor to the top of the building. There were columns of photos of people who had something to do with the university. I took in the pattern of the seats around me and the curve of an ugly, chaotic sculpture nearby. There was a fish tank and deep-green algae, and I watched for a system in the way the fish swam around the tank. Without recognizing what I was touching, I picked some sparkly tinsel from the Christmas tree and twirled the bits in my fingers. Embarrassed, I realized what I'd done and put the bits in my pocket.

A short, round man with big, round eyes came around the corner. Calm and predictable, his movements precise, his voice rhythmic and patterned and in no way overwhelming, he seemed like some wise old owl.

On the way to an office was a standard drink machine. It was the kind you find in psychiatry places that sells disgusting powdered orange tea in smelly plastic cups. Linoleum made a path under my feet. It was the sort that led to a multitude of look-alike fluorescent-lit offices inside of look-alike multistory buildings full of look-alike people with look-alike jobs and sound-alike blah-blah voices. It seemed the sort of place where one can get easily lost and each person asks another person to help you until you are surrounded by helpful people and you just run blindly through corridor after corridor.

Stop it, Donna, you're winding yourself up, I reminded myself on the verge of panic. I breathed deeply and rhythmically. Through a glass corridor, I looked out at the sunshine. Goodbye, sun, I said to myself, as though seeing it for the last time. I kept breathing. Relax, I ordered myself. You'll come back out. He's a psychologist, not a brain surgeon.

Dr. Marek chose an office. I felt awful. I hated having no idea where I was going and I was too intact to “disappear.”

The office was narrow and I felt closed in, a rabbit in a cage. It was too much like being taken into those little offices in high school where you felt like a bug being observed under a microscope, as exposed as being nude onstage under floodlights before an awaiting audience.

BOOK: Somebody Somewhere
9.49Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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