“To see a world in a grain of sand,
And heaven in a wild flower.
Hold infinity in the palm of your hand,
And eternity in an hour.”
In our side yard, there is a giant maple tree. Two things make this tree special: 1. It has dark crimson leaves that stand out from the green of the surrounding trees. And 2. My boy loves this tree and thinks it is beautiful.
Truth be told, this tree isn’t in OUR side yard. It’s actually in the neighbor’s yard, but its lower branches reach out over the fence into our yard. And, truth be told, I really have no idea if my boy loves this tree or thinks it is beautiful.
My son has autism and is non-verbal. He cannot express himself through words or language at this point, and it was only a little before his fifth birthday that he showed signs of understanding what others were saying to him. Something as simple as following a request to “pick up the ball” or answering “yes” or “no” to a question are skills he has not mastered yet.
To know that my son loves the crimson maple tree in the neighbor’s yard, I need to interpret the clues he gives me…like the fact that he sometimes stops running and stands staring at the tree as its branches sway in the wind…or the way he sprints through the yard with his head tilted up towards it shouting, “I-yeee!” with a huge smile on his face…and how upset he got when he found one of its leaves on the ground and handed it to me, indicating that he wanted me to put it back on the branch from which it had fallen.
Yup, I’m pretty sure he loves that tree.
One wish I have always had is for the ability to climb inside his head – to see what he’s thinking and understand how he sees the world. Ever since he was first able to pick up and observe objects, sprinkle sand, and pour water, my son has, at times, become fixated in these activities, performing them over and over. I find myself wondering what he sees, what he’s thinking.
Why does he bring toys close to his face, moving them from the middle to the very periphery of his vision field?
What does he see when he scoops a handful of sand, lifts it to his eyes, and allows it to slowly trickle back into the sandbox?
What observations does he make as he watches a handful of pebbles bounce off the plastic table, the rubber ball, the metal railing?
What questions fill his mind as he drives himself crazy trying to catch a drop of water between his thumb and forefinger has it falls from the end of the hose?
Without language, without the ability to communicate, the workings of his mind remain inaccessible to me.
I’ve been told that he focuses on tiny grains of sand, water drops, toys, and other small objects to block out a world that is overwhelming to his senses. I have no doubt that this is true. But autistic people who have found language, like Temple Grandin and Naoki Higashida, lead me to believe there might be more to it.
Maybe it’s not just blocking out the world, maybe it’s also appreciating the world in its most minute detail.
Children his age are usually full of imagination and questions. I would think he is just as creative and curious, but without language he must make sense of his world through observation alone. His brain must find a different way to think thoughts, organize them, and learn from them. I’m guessing his imagination and the stories he invents must be quite unique, indeed!
At a recent play date, I watched three children the same age as my son running from the sandbox to the porch where they sat with their feet dangling from the edge as they sprinkled handfuls of sand onto the cement sidewalk below. Chatting happily with each other, they repeated this over and over, until I finally asked what they were doing. “Feeding the sharks!” they said.
Huh! Well, of course! The clues were there, weren’t they? After all, the route they took from the sandbox to the porch always avoided the cement walkway. And they were being very careful not to dangle their feet too close (although apparently the sharks were of a friendly variety). And how else would you feed sharks but to sprinkle food from above?
See, a child’s mind works differently from an adult’s mind…an autistic child’s mind, even more so. I was able to put the clues to the shark story together only after they had explained with words what they were imagining. With my son, however, there are no words for him to explain his thoughts. And the clues he gives to the inner workings of his mind can be as frustratingly elusive as that water drop that he just can’t capture.
But sometimes, when I’m really lucky, I feel like clues ARE there.
Like when my boy scooped up a handful of sand and ran across the yard, opening his hand and releasing a sand trail into the air as he went, I saw the joy on his face and tried to imagine what he was seeing. Perhaps he imagined something far more beautiful than just sand. Maybe to him it glittered and sparkled as it fell back to the ground, a tail for my little “comet boy” as he flew toward the sun.
I’m a writer, a lover of words and language. But I’m learning that thoughts can be conveyed in much simpler and subtler ways. It’s a form of communication that requires me to pay close attention, to act as an interpreter, to give words and meaning to the clues my son is sharing from his inner world.
On a sunny afternoon not too long ago, my son ran around the corner of the house and came to a stop. He was staring at his tree. I walked up beside him, and he looked up at me, his eyes shining. I sat down next to him in the grass, and he climbed onto my lap, and there we sat, gazing at the crimson maple tree, listening to the sounds of the birds and insects. His little body, usually bursting with movement and energy, was quiet and relaxed, watching.
He was smiling.
He was communicating.
He was sharing with me, the same way another child might point and say, “Look, Mommy! That tree is beautiful!”
He was telling me to stop, to pay attention, to not just acknowledge the tree’s existence, but to experience its beauty.
And it really IS a beautiful tree.
You know? Maybe my son CAN see heaven in a wildflower.