When my chronic pain hits its zenith, its absolute worst, and my mental and emotional facilties start to slip because of it, I remember him.
My student, who will remain nameless only because I will never get his consent to say his name- but my former student, who I directed in his middle school plays, that’s not him in the photo but that is me around the same time I met him.
He was the first person to say to me, “I’m autistic.”
It was because I had touched his shoulder to move him to another position, and as a very touch aversive boy he nearly jumped out of his skin. And he said, “Please don’t touch me, I’m autistic.” And having never known anything about autism, because I wasn’t even close to my scope of self awareness yet, at first, I was annoyed. I felt rebuked. But the sincerity of his distress, his voice, stayed with me for so long that I knew it was real. I can see it still, movement for movement, his curly blonde hair bouncing in shock, his blue eyes going wide, the rigid posture, and the stressed blinking. And I think the truth was, in that moment, I had a blue streak of recognition. I am not touch aversive, but I knew that fear and pain in his eyes. I had seen it in my own.
My diagnosis was more than a dozen years away but I saw the truth. And that truth probably made me too hard on him sometimes, just as I was to myself. Just as I was to the other nuerodivergent children that I adored but also wanted to “help” by repeating the same advice to me. Bad advice.
It also made my mother one of his most fierce supporters, even if she didn’t always understand why. I think she saw it too. My mother and I worked together to create these productions if you did not know this already. We were colloquially known as THE Burkhalters, and we occasionally dragged my sister and father into the family business from time to time.
A few years ago, very close to my diagnosis, but not yet. When my son, with his own bouncing curly blonde hair and wide blue eyes, was given his diagnosis. And I kept telling his doctors, “I am not afraid of autism. I have had autistic students. I know how great they can be.”
My student killed himself by stepping off the roof of his New York city apartment. I got this news the way anyone gets news these days, through facebook and rumor. It nearly destroyed me. I’m still hoping the way he did it was just some misinformation, but I don’t believe it was.
No one will convince me that he was beyond saving. And because I know that feeling. The desperateness to make the pain stop. Often LITERAL physical pain, not just emotional pain. I often feel myself falling. Falling with him.
I’m not posting this as a request for sympathy or even as a confession that I did not do enough. I didn’t. I’m not even telling you as a cautionary tale. That if you take that step you will haunt your loved ones forever.
I guess, what I am saying, is what I want to do is go back in time and tell that little boy something else.
“I got you,” I’d say. “You want to take a break? That pain will stop if we just give you a break. I got you.”
I got you. I got you. I got you.
That’s what I want to say. Not “Okay, honey. Then scooch to the left for me. Good job.”
He was a very gifted young actor. He couldn’t cover his stimming blinks until much later, but I think he eventually did. And though, at the time, I thought he had grown out of his touch aversiveness somehow, I think he just learned to grin and take it. That shouldn’t have been the success story we all treated it as. Good job, we said. (Me too, remember, we knew even less then.) When he lost his scholarship for pot use (which was probably how he was dealing with his pain) he somehow fell from grace in the conventional midwestern town he was from. The town that had also bullied him. For being gay, for being autistic, for being weird.
One of the only fights I got into with the administration of the school was when they said that I didn’t have the power to demand the children who broke his crochet loom pay to get him another and apologize. The same children who called him a fag. I backed down because I didn’t have power. I didn’t have power over myself let alone the people who blamed him for bringing it upon himself. So I hid, literally, in the orchestra pit.
I can still remember the look of anger and betrayal on his father’s face.
I didn’t go to the funeral. I couldn’t. I sent letters with my mother who went as our representative, so that THE Burkhalters were in attendance.
I should have known that I would never get to say goodbye, even if I did go to the funeral. Because he’s there. In the wind that I feel in a still room when the pain is at its worst. Wind rushing by, a roar in my ears, as I fall with him. Again and again and again.
I got you, kid.