“Why bother playing baseball if it’s not competitive?”
My nephew has a good question, and I know the kid will see right through a flimsy politically correct answer. A half-dozen years ago, there were lots of great ways to explain to a small child the benefits of non-competitive sports. But my nephew is almost in middle school, and there’s no use in pretending that not keeping score is any fun for someone his age.
“My old team was a bunch of disabled kids,” he goes on to explain. “They totally sucked. One guy got like 15 pitches — which is ridiculous!”
There are so many un-PC thoughts strung together in that sentence that I can’t help but laugh out loud. I am watching my nephew bounce back and forth on the steel bleachers at my daughter’s softball game, and as he goes into a long diatribe about how lame it is when everyone is a winner, I have to nod in agreement.
“I would be good if I just played more,” he says.
He grabs a bat to both illustrate his point and also to alleviate the boredom of being a kid watching someone else playing ball. I scan the faces of the fans surrounding me and see actual fear, which makes me laugh a little more. He’s not swinging the thing, only using it like a cane for a silly little soft shoe dance.
As soon as he picks it up and plops it on his shoulder I order, “Give it to me.” He obliges, a little grin on his face. If the kid knows anything, it’s how to amuse himself. And mess with well-meaning grown-ups.
Preferably at the same time.
The words adults ascribe to my nephew aren’t words at all; they’re slews of letters. ASD, PDD-NOS, ADHD, EIP, IEP.
Kids are a little more to the point: loud, loser, weird-o, and a few choice words stronger than that. This shocks even me, his potty-mouthed aunt.
When I ask him who is behind the worst of the lot, I learn it’s a bully who doesn’t reserve his bad behavior for just my nephew — he’s an equal opportunity offender. But my heart breaks when my nephew admits that the bully’s nastiest taunts are aimed specifically at him.
In my most soothing voice I tell him, “A kid like that clearly has something going on at home, honey. Just give him love and compassion, and move on.”
My nephew screws up his face like he’s just eaten a worm. “No way, man. That guy doesn’t deserve my compassion.”
He’s not wrong. It’s hard to feel anything but seething anger toward a kid that would make fun of an autistic classmate. But I also know that compassion, which is the root of kindness, can also feel cloying and false.
My nephew’s not one to mince words, nor is he one to fake it to make anyone else feel better about him or herself. He knows exactly who he is on the spectrum of life and chooses to define himself by his attributes, not his disorder.
“Some kids say I’m a nerd, but they’re the stupid ones. They don’t take the time to know me. I’m a really good guy,” he tells me.
Self confidence like that is something we all could use. I watch him strut around the park in his cool bowler hat, and I realize that he is fully aware that he is making a bit of a scene. Some of the perpetual motion is fueled by how his brain works, but there’s enough obvious preening to clue me in that he’s learned a thing or two from his favorite band, Big Time Rush.
When he’s not bouncing around the bleachers, he’s focused on his iPad, which is currently playing the horror flick Puppet Master II. It is probably pathetic that a 47-year-old woman is petrified of random things like puppets, clowns, and creepy dolls, but I admit that I am. I’m also unnerved by the freak show of action figures he’s brought along that he likes to line up at home to watch every move we make all weekend. I tell him all of this, and suggest we watch our old fave, SpongeBob SquarePants instead.
“I’ve outgrown that show,” he tells me in an exasperated voice. “Why don’t you outgrow your fears? They’re irrational.”
Later he admits that he has an elaborate plan to wake himself up at 3:00 a.m. to put his Puppet Master figurines in my bed for me to, “cuddle up” with them. He thinks this is hilarious, and I admit that it would be a good prank. Secretly I hope he’s too tired to pull it off.
I worry a little bit about his current horror movie obsession, but then again, if you know anything about autism, you know that the experience of the disorder has elements of the macabre. From infancy, those close to my nephew could tell there was something different about him. I couldn’t help but notice that he was often inconsolable, and the way he cried had a different tone, a more horrible urgency, than any other babies I knew.
Our concerns were realized when he was diagnosed at three years old. By five we could tell that wearing long pants, closed shoes, and jackets were torturous to him, as were loud, unexpected noises and busy places like restaurants and shopping malls. But he could count way before preschool and showed an early love of ordering and organizing his toys. I know these things are considered “symptoms,” but they’re signs of intelligence, too.
My nephew could rattle off the entire Thomas the Tank Engine catalog of characters as he lined them up on the tracks, and my feeble memory could only hold about 10 names before I gave up.
Nowadays, aside from his horror movie obsession, he’s also into the WWE universe, and from the second he popped into my car at the airport, I was treated to a list of his favorite wrestlers: Sheamus, John Cena, Hornswoggle, Randy Orton, Kane, and Daniel Bryan.
When I tell my sister-in-law how cute his new WWE bent is, she warns, “Don’t fall for it, and don’t let him trick you into buying him a lot of crap just because he’s autistic.”
Two shopping excursions to Target and $100 in WWE action figures and settings later, I have to admit I was a sucker not for his shtick, but for the enthusiasm he brings to the things that he digs. As he describes bouts in gory detail to me, I marvel at the photographic quality of his memory. Another cool thing about autism.
When we get in the car he tells me, “When we get back to the house, I’m gonna unbox everything and you’re gonna take my picture and send it to my mom.”
I tell him that would be great, she’ll be so happy that he’s happy.
He snickers to himself. “I can’t wait to tell her that I made out like a bandit. ”
Many years ago, when my nephew was first diagnosed, his mom and I had a joke that the doctors meant to say, “artistic.” Now I realize how applicable that word is — there is sheer genius and artistry in the pranks and cons he tees up for himself. Turning a disability into an asset is a pretty cool trick.
So if you see me and my nephew counting cards in Vegas, don’t rat us out. We’re just pulling ability out of disability, and discarding the rest. And that’s the best way to play the hand that you’re dealt.