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A Will of His Own

A Will of His Own

Reflections on Parenting a Child with Autism - Revised Edition

Kelly Harland
Foreword by Jane Asher, President of the National Autistic Society

Paperback: £16.99 / $26.95

2007, 234mm x 156mm / 9.25in x 6in, 160pp
ISBN: 978-1-84310-869-6, BIC 2: JM JMC VFJD

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This is where we are now.

It's an early September evening and Will and I are sitting on a wooden bench beneath a crescent moon. The sky is black, the air is crisp and cool with the onset of autumn, and high up in the dark the bright moon, hung at an angle, burns silver. We rest with our arms touching before a big fountain, the one that seemed such an unusual structure when it was first unveiled in the center of our upscale neighborhood shopping center a couple of years ago. It was designed to stand as an oasis amidst the buzzing palatial stores and quaint cafes that surround it, and now here it looms, a mini-Stonehenge-with-waterfalls, lit up like an attraction in the twilight. Will and I have learned to appreciate it, because the kids can actually play in it in summer, and on a night like tonight it soothes-it sings, as water spurts abundantly from the top of the big stones and splashes into the shining pool at their base.

Now the merchants are getting ready to lock their doors: we have already spent an hour or so inside the shops, not shopping, never shopping, but running all around as we always do, mother chasing boy, boy bumping into other boys who are picking out pencils in the school supplies section of the drugstore, boys chattering away about which color notebook to buy, on this eve of the week before my boy's third grade life begins. William simply cannot stand still in a school supplies aisle, or in any other section of any place of business. He bounces off the walls, he "sharks" as his occupational therapist calls it-runs the inside perimeter of the building, moving round and round and round at rapid speed. There is too much stuff in a store, too much for his brain to handle, so the aisles are enough-the aisles and the doors and the exit signs are what he sees and knows, the things that guide him through the chaos.

That race through stores, which began when Will was two (he is now ten) has become just a regular part of our lives, like a stroll in the park. So our dip into the drugstore lasts a total of three or four minutes, and the same for all the other stores in the village of shops. Then finally, here on the bench by the shimmering fountain, the chase is over and the little shark relaxes. We are in the open air, in the calm night, and there is nothing to stimulate but cascading water and its burbling melody. We are alone in the moonlight.

The conversation, led by him, goes like this:

"Elementary school has fourth grade and fifth grade left to go." His green eyes stare up at Stonehenge, reflecting silver light, flashing with thoughts.

"Yes," I say.

"After that, we don't know what middle school I'm going to choose."

"Right." He once drew a chart on his chalkboard of all the grades up through four years of college. Then he added: "Job-2 years."

"It could be Hamilton, or Eckstein." Will knows every last school building in the Seattle district. He's made his father and me drive past each one of them a hundred times. We've traipsed them on foot during off-hours and we know every corner and cranny. It is the layout of each school campus that pulls him-the halls, the boys' and girls' bathrooms. Little variations on a design that is, when set apart from bustling hollering crowds of students, so beautifully predictable.

"Could be." I'm really listening now, after doing our store-run on automatic pilot.

"Could be," Will echoes. My heart is brought up short. If there happened to be anyone passing by, this little boy's manner of speaking would sound odd. It comes out in a funny singsong, so baby-like for a child his size. And the mother's voice in response might sound casual, like a normal mom talking to her kid. But in true matter of fact, the kid is at his shining, unprecedented best and Mom is holding her breath. I am, as my soul starts to stir, trying to contain myself. This is a conversation. This is something that has been an incredible uphill battle for Will-something that we work hard, every day, to achieve. For years we've paid professionals to assist us with this. We've written stories about it to try to get it going. And now here it is, rolling along spectacularly, without struggle, the words sailing happily up into the luxuriant night air.

"After high school comes college." This is a new one on me. "Yes, college." I say. "Maybe," I add quickly.

"I'll go to the University of Washington. I'll have my lunch in the Student Union building. I'll have a cookie, a muffin, or a scone."

Now I feel the need to interject and not for reasons of nutrition. "People have to pay a lot of money to go there, you know, Will. Lots of people are trying to get in. We'll see." Why can't I just let him dream on, a child's dream? It's because I know. He gets these things in his mind and he is like no child or human I have ever seen. The thought forms in concrete and can't be moved. Once built, it stays and stays-till he graduates from high school and he's standing there confronting me as if no time had ever lapsed between this moment and the future. He'll be asking me then about the UW, I'm sure of it. But now the fall night crackles and he goes on-disregarding my warning, and to my utter amazement.

"After that I'll get a job. I'll live in an apartment down by the waterfront. I'll work at the Seattle Trade Center. I'll ride my bike."

Excellent! My concerns over how I'll create a private classroom at the UW vanish. I'm delighted with this design for a career track. I'm especially pleased that there is no car on it.

"I think there's a bike rack at the Trade Center," he says. Yes, as a matter of fact, there probably is. "I'll have an office…and a computer…and a view of the railroad tracks!" Certainly. Now the scent of some faraway harvest-night bonfire rides past me on the breeze and I am caught up. I snuggle into my sweater. This exchange is a miracle. I'm hearing about a dream-a dream!-from a boy whose way of thinking is so narrow and delayed it doesn't seem possible that a dream would be allowed in. And I'm imagining: the Trade Center. Can't one rent office space there? Couldn't I set something up?

"Maybe you'll even have an office door with your name on it!"

He scoots to the edge of the bench. "I'll have a sign that says: 'Will!'"

Everything in the shopping center is turned off, but the water in the fountain is still at play, tumbling and splashing in the spotlight, echoing Will's cry. So many nights I have lain awake as tears-mixed-with-prayers dampened my pillow. I've put in a lot of time in the dark, feeling heavy and helpless and terrified for a future I can't predict. But all of a sudden the future has revealed itself from the other side, and it's being held up before my eyes like an Olympic torch. Whatever has led us to this-years of speech therapy, hours upon hours of my own input based on instinct and a few educated guesses, his father's incredible talent for showing him a way to walk through this world-William can see his dream, and it looks good. In fact, it looks perfect. And he's telling me all about it.

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