this is autism



Old Cutter John comes to town, leaving Las Vegas before dawn and driving across desert and mountains to Berkeley nonstop, no sleep, fueled by coffee and chocolate and a whole lot of CDs full of music to play over and over again with the volume on the stereo of the rental car turned up to eleven.

The CDs are mix CDs he made, and mix CDs I made for him. For a few years we shared an obsession with making these mix CDs and sharing them with one another and with friends. Each CD is a collection of songs we like, united by a particular theme, or a complex set of interrelated themes. They are musical stories or treatises; soundtracks to unmade movies about whatever aspects of life we were contemplating at the time. The themes are not simple, it’s not like, “This one is a collection of my favorite love songs, and this one is a dance mix for parties.” Titles of our various mix CDs include The Mark of Cain, 100 Years of Solitude, Where They Never Have Troubles, and The Logistic Difference Equation.

Like me, Old Cutter John is an Autistic activist. He’s also my father. I recently discovered that many people in the Autistic activism community – including people who have been friends with both Old Cutter John and I for years – were unaware that he was my father. We’ve never tried to conceal the fact from anyone. It just never occurs to us to mention it if no one asks.

Once Old Cutter John mentioned to someone that he’s known me for decades. The person asked where Old Cutter John and I had first met.

Old Cutter John replied, “In a hospital.”

This is autism.

It’s a bright cool Sunday in Berkeley, and when I step into my aikido dojo the sun is singing through the skylights, suffusing the big airy space and making shiny hot pools of white on the rich vibrant blue of the mat. That vibrant expanse of blue makes a low soft thrumming and gives me a feeling of warm wide open spaces behind me and in the lower part of my lungs. The sunlight sounds like a choir of angels, and together with the pleasantly humming mint-flavored whiteness of walls it makes my skin tingle and opens a luminous sky in my chest and all around my head. I inhale into that space and the cool air fills my head with exhilarating white-blue and brings new, higher harmonies into the choir.

There’s a moment of silence waiting for me at the top of the inhale, and just as I reach it I realize that another sound is happening, too, a grey-brown sound that rolls and tumbles like an otter in the blue-white river of sensation. This sound is incongruous and merits investigation, so as I begin to breathe out I do that trick that I learned to do when I was a real tiny kid, the trick that no one ever talked about and that I could never explain to anyone because, as I eventually learned long after I grew up, for most people it’s not a trick that they have to do, it’s just the way they are all the time. The trick where I filter and sort and separate the currents of the river until they resolve themselves into a world of discrete objects with names and meanings.

Dojo, walls, blue mat on blonde wood floor. Seven of my aikido students in white gi, early arrivals for class, on the mat, stretching. The choir is still singing blue-white, the walls still have that minty tingle. Interpreting some of the currents and eddies of the river as discrete objects with names doesn’t make the river stop. The flow is always happening. The world of discrete objects and names is a part of the river, too, and it’s the part where most other people live by default. Me, I’m just visiting.

Once I’ve made the necessary shift in consciousness, it becomes clear to me that the grey-brown tumbling otter sound that got my attention was someone talking to me. A greeting, I think, from one of the students on the mat. Yes, he’s looking at me.

Quick mental checklist, made quicker by the fact that I don’t think in words and thus don’t have to go through it in a linear fashion. If it were a literal checklist, though, written out in words, it would go something like this:

Does his greeting call for a response on my part? Yes, definitely.

Is he smiling? Yes.

Should I smile back? Yes. . .

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