Monday, June 9, 2014


I just learned something that's going to make me a more relaxed and patient person! I'm reading The Reason I Jump, by Naoki Higashida, a Japanese boy with autism.  Naoki explains what it's like to have autism by answering a series of questions.  

Question 3: Why do you ask the same questions over and over? 

Before I share his answer, I just want to admit that my teenager says I ask "Do you have homework?"  as many as four times in one afternoon. She says my memory is going and that I don't listen. Maybe. But maybe it's something much less negative...

Recently I spent a couple of days with my father-in-law who asked me every time I entered the room,  "When is Geoffrey (his son) returning from Mexico?" 

I kept changing my answer: "In about three weeks"; "June 25th"; "when he finishes teaching his class"; "pretty soon"; "before the 4th of July"; "before you know it." But no answer made him stop asking and I became somewhat exasperated. He's not the first elderly person who has asked me the same question over and over of course. It's a common phenomenon with the aging brain. But Naoki's answer is helping me see it in a new light. 

Q. Why do you ask the same questions over and over?

Naoki's answer:  It lets us play with words. We (people with autism) aren't good at conversation, and however hard we try, we'll never speak as effortlessly as you do. The big exception, however, is words or phrases we're very familiar with. Repeating these is great fun. It's like a game of catch with a ball.

Yes! Conversation can be so much like a game of catch! And I love to play catch! When I read that answer, I thought of the loveliest game of catch I ever played... 

When we first started living in Mexico, my daughter was very young and in the evening she would play in the street with the children from the house opposite. Their mother and I would stand outside and watch for cars while the children rode on bikes and scooters and played "soccer". My Spanish was awful, and so Rosey and I didn't get very far communicating with words. 

She was a pretty woman with gorgeous white teeth -- in her house was a picture of her as a beauty pageant winner.  Her husband was a hilarious, good-natured guy who was wild about her. They loved spending time with their children, but it looked to me like she really had wanted to stop after having two, and when she was pregnant with the third she had seemed embarrassed and unhappy. But the third child turned out to be a totally charming little character, and after he was born the couple went back to laughing a lot. 

Their house was very modest, a tiny facade with a door and one window, attached on both sides to similar houses, and yet the husband loved it because that's where he had been born and raised. When his siblings bought him out and they had to move away, he asked me to make them a painting of the house. I painted it with their children sitting on the curb in front, and that painting became one of their cherished possessions. 

As you can tell, I knew quite a bit about these people and their lives, but really we had very little verbal communication because of my weak Spanish skills and I felt bad because there was a lot I wished I could say. (If you're wondering why I didn't work harder to learn Spanish, my defense is that I was working very hard to become a painter. I had limited time each year in Mexico, and it was my time to devote to learning my art.)

Then one day our two families went to a water park. The fathers took the kids to one pool and Rose and I were alone together in the "adult" pool. Spontaneously we began to play catch with a red ball with white polka-dots, about 10 inches in diameter. We threw that ball back and forth for …. forever…. we just kept it going until our arms ached. I remember us both grinning the whole time. My face hurt from smiling. It was such a relief to have this method of connecting. It was definitely communicating. It was communicating joy and happiness about being together and admiration for each other. There was the happiness of being freed up from the kids a little and gratefulness for our husbands and their friendship with each other. There was relief in being able to show how much we liked each other by simply continuing to send that ball back and forth until we were sunburned and exhausted. 

Thinking about that game of catch and what Naoki said, I'm now reinterpreting my father-in-law's persistent questions as his way of wanting to engage me but not having enough mental capacity/energy to always start a "real" conversation. I now believe my answers weren't important. Sending words back and forth was the important thing, not finding an answer that would satisfy him and stop him from asking. With that in mind, I'm looking forward to visiting him again. 

There is a lot we can learn about human behavior from people whose brains are wired differently from our own. Over the last year I've read a number of books by authors with brain challenges:  Born on a Blue Day, by  Daniel Tammet, a man with Savant Syndrome, a form of Asperger's; The Center Cannot Hold, by Elyn R. Saks, a professor of Law, Psychology, and Psychiatry with schizophrenia; The World's Strongest Librarian, by Josh Hanagarne, a librarian with Tourette's syndrome; and  Brain on Fire, by Susannah Cahalan, a reporter who developed a brain disease which severely altered her behavior for a period of time.

Through these books, I've become accepting and less afraid of people whose behaviors used to make me uncomfortable.  What a relief it is to find out over and over again that people want to be friendly and to feel that they belong, they just can't always express it the way we might expect. I want to be friendly! So I'm happy to be reminded it doesn't have to be hard. Sometimes it can be as easy as playing catch.

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