The Magic Pebble

Being the mother of an autistic child

Pennsylvania Gazette, July 2002

How do you know if your child is happy? A difficult question, by any stretch. Now, what if he’s autistic and cannot use language functionally enough to tell you? I spend a lot of my mothering time wondering if my 12-year-old autistic son is lonely. He is alone a lot, by choice, though not “in his own world,” as people assume.

He’s very much a part of this world; it’s just that he lives in it very differently than I do. Mostly, the world is imposed on him. He gets interrupted by the whims of the world.

If I say, “Are you happy?” he will say, “OK.” He believes that is the answer I am looking for; he does not grasp the concept of the open-ended question. He does not know that there is no correct answer to “Are you happy?” He knows, however, that there is a correct answer to “How are you?” Most people who ask that question want to hear “Fine.” My son cannot draw distinctions between these questions.

Lately my son has become fascinated with William Steig’s children’s book, Sylvester and the Magic Pebble, which features a young donkey who finds a magic pebble, and in a moment of panic, uses it to turn himself into a rock, with no hope of ever becoming a donkey again. My son has loved this story since he was a toddler. He has by now memorized it, as children do. At the heart of the book is a donkey who, now a rock, is “stone dumb,” and cannot speak, even when his own mother comes to sit down upon him during a picnic.

Some say that the autistic have no “theory of mind” or sense of other people’s emotional or mental states. I am not so sure. My son’s fixation with Sylvester has made me realize that perhaps he does have some emerging empathic ability. Despite what I have learned about his difficulty in making distinctions between subtle social situations, I have come to believe that he actually understands a little about the plight of Sylvester Duncan, the unfortunate donkey, and that it is this very plight that attracts my son.

I tried asking him about the different feelings displayed in the story, for example, when Sylvester is changed back into a donkey. I pointed to the poignant illustration of Sylvester, a donkey once more, embracing his delighted, weeping parents, and I asked my son how they were feeling. He said, “Sad.” From a literal standpoint, this answer is not correct, because the reader is supposed to understand that the parents and son are happy at being reunited, not sad. However, there is the factor of mixed feelings to consider: that everyone is also sad about the time they’d lost as a family.

I’m not suggesting that my son understands such a complex concept as Sylvester’s family’s ambivalence. Rather, it’s his own nascent ability to relate to this character that I may be observing. For I believe that when I asked my son how they were feeling, he answered in the only context he really understands: his own head. I believe that he was telling me that this part of the story made him sad: that perhaps he was experiencing the earliest signs of empathy.

Am I projecting? My husband thinks so, though he is too kind to say it. Is it that I want to see some sort of cosmic irony in the fact that my autistic son is obsessed with a story about a donkey who is a rock and can’t talk to anyone? And yet would I really want to believe that he understands this much? Because if he really does understand the story, isn’t it also possible that he understands his own plight as an autistic, to some degree? Can he make a leap like that? I hope so, and I hope not.

But it does happen; some of the higher-functioning autism-spectrum kids I know have begun to develop depression as they enter their early teens because they understand that they are somehow different, but they don’t know what to do about it. The higher level of capability becomes a blessing and then a curse.

The tragedy of being autistic is not only that you don’t know what things are, but that you are rather unknowable yourself. Mothers have to become detectives. Fathers may become skeptics. Siblings tune you out, as you do them. Even if you are not “in your own world,” you seek refuge from this strange and demanding world, even when it offers love. Even love does not feel the way we non-autistics experience it, though I can’t say how it’s different. I once heard Dr. Temple Grandin, an autistic who has written on the topic of being autistic, say that she has learned to study emotional behavior to inform herself about how to respond “correctly” to situations involving feelings like love.

But being the mother of an autistic boy is not the end of the world. It means I don’t get the feedback that other kids can give more freely, but it also causes me to find meaning in unusual ways, to experience my child’s growth and happy moments perhaps more easily than the mothers of typical children. I can be moved by my child answering a question about a book; or even asking me to sit with him and read him the book. It’s enormously flattering to be wanted by an autistic child.

Of course, if someone were to offer me a magic pebble to change my child from a rock…