Eventually I began to realize that he was mortified about his failure to live up to my expectations. Shortly after Tyler turned 13, for instance, I took him to a Christmas party hosted by President Obama for the press corps. While we were waiting in line to get our pictures taken with the president and first lady, a tuxedoed waiter offered Tyler a flute of cranberry juice. “Nope,” Tyler replied. A willowy hostess presented a tray of bacon-wrapped shrimp. “Nuh-uh,” he said. I told him, “Be polite, son.” Inside, I cringed.
I was not just embarrassed about Tyler’s manners; I was embarrassed about being embarrassed. After all, he wasn’t trying to be rude. He was actually trying his damndest to fit in, rehearsing the handshake and hellos as we stood in line. “It’s a pleasure to meet you, sir. It’s a pleasure to meet you, sir. It’s a pleasure to meet you, sir,” Tyler repeated as we inched our way toward the Green Room. When the couple in front of us stepped forward to pose with the Obamas, my 13-year-old boy with sky-blue eyes and a 130 IQ looked up at me and said, “I hope I don’t let you down, Dad.”
Max Braverman is a sweet, wickedly smart boy. He is also rude, obsessed with insects, and prone to meltdowns. His parents ricochet between exasperation, guilt, and fear. Max has Asperger’s syndrome, a form of autism that hinders social interaction. Aspies lack the ability to read emotional clues such as facial expressions and have difficulty navigating conversations. They tend to fixate on interests and repetitive behaviors.
Max is a character in the NBC drama Parenthood, and when Lori saw an episode, she recognized Tyler in Max—and us in his parents. “Tyler might be autistic,” she told me when he was 12. “Watch the show.” I did, sitting at my computer until 3 a.m. Suddenly, it seemed clear what was wrong with our little boy. I wept and convulsed with fear. Also, relief: Max is far worse off than Tyler, and now we might at least know what we were dealing with.
Lori immediately found Dr. Mittie Quinn, a psychologist in McLean, Va., who gave Tyler a battery of IQ and psychological tests. She took into account his attention-deficit disorder, which we had been treating, over my objections, with mild medication. Seven years after the Oval Office visit, Lori and I walked into Quinn’s office to hear the test results. An unfinished puzzle sat on the floor, next to a wooden train, its locomotive missing. “Your boy is fascinating for somebody like me,” Quinn said. “He’s got all kinds of stuff going on. But he’s just a charming, charming kid.”
I pulled a pen and pad out of my computer bag: 25 years as a reporter and I had never been so anxious to take good notes. For the next 30 minutes, I scribbled Quinn’s remarks and occasionally wrote comments to myself in parentheses:
Attention: His internal motor revs so much faster than normal.… I’d hate to see what he’s like when he’s off the attention-deficit medicine.… This makes him impulsive. He can’t help but blurt things out.… Don’t yell at him (WE YELL!)
Intelligence: Even with impulsive and distraction issues, Tyler is unusually bright.… He’s a sponge.… His IQ measured at 110-120. If we could factor out the attention issues, potentially he’d be far, far above 130. (CAN WE EVER FACTOR OUT?)
Executive functioning: Severe fine-motor issues (NO SPORTS—NO WONDER)
Social/emotional: Spectrum disorder. Asperger’s, autism … twirls hair, flaps his arms … loves people but can’t easily put himself in people’s shoes … can’t pick up social clues, facial clues.… Tyler fits pretty classically as the Asperger’s piece. (UGH).
Labeled “little professors” by the pediatrician who identified the syndrome in the 1940s, Aspies can be taught the social clues that most people inherit. Especially well suited for instruction, Quinn said, are boys like Tyler who are on the high-functioning end of the autism and Asperger’s scale. Indeed, some experts believe we are all on the spectrum. To some degree, maybe we’re all Aspies.
Then she dropped the bomb: “He scored himself as [above] average on depression,” Quinn said. “He’s at risk for severe depression.” Lori and I had thought Tyler was content and self-contained. But, Quinn told us, “life is getting worse—and worse in a hurry—for him.” Tyler, like millions of other Aspies, would eventually lead a happy and successful life, she said. But for now, “he’s sad. Nobody understands him. Kids make fun of him, and he’s left out.” Thankfully he had a sense of humor to prop him up. “Do you know what Tyler said when I told him he needed to show more empathy? He gave me a big, confident smile and said, ‘I know. I’m working on that.’ ”
It was time to do some work of our own. If Tyler felt alienated and alone, it was because we had failed to acknowledge—and accept—his difference. I was so focused on the conceit that my son would be like Kevin Costner’s character in Field of Dreams that I failed to see the son I was lucky enough to have. It was time to get to know Tyler.