Professorship: Ron and Tyler visit the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum.
National Journal
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Ron Fournier
Nov. 29, 2013, 10:56 a.m.

Our noses were prac­tic­ally touch­ing the wall. Tall, white, and seam­less, it was the only thing stand­ing between us and the pres­id­ent of the United States. “Stay right there,” a White House aide told me, my wife, and three chil­dren. “The pres­id­ent will be with you in a minute.” Sud­denly, the wall opened; it was a hid­den door to the Oval Of­fice. “Come on in, Fourni­er!” shouted George W. Bush. “Who ya’ drag­ging in?”

It was my last day cov­er­ing the White House for the As­so­ci­ated Press, and this 2003 vis­it was a cour­tesy that pres­id­ents tra­di­tion­ally af­ford de­part­ing cor­res­pond­ents. I in­tro­duced my wife, Lori, and two daugh­ters, Holly and Abby, be­fore turn­ing to their 5-year-old broth­er. “Where’s Barney?” Tyler asked.

“He’s com­ing!” Bush replied as his Scot­tish ter­ri­er scampered in­to the room. “Let’s do a photo!”

As the most power­ful man on Earth pre­pared to pose for a pic­ture, my son launched in­to a one-sided con­ver­sa­tion, fir­ing off one choppy phrase after an­oth­er with ma­chine-gun de­liv­ery. “Scot­tish ter­ri­ers are called Scot­ties, they ori­gin­ated from Scot­land, they can be traced back to a single fe­male named Splinter II, Pres­id­ent Roosevelt had one, he called it Fala, Dad says he kept him in the of­fice down there when he was swim­ming, there’s one in Mono­poly, my fa­vor­ite is the car …”

I cringed. Tyler is lov­ing, charm­ing, and bril­liant—he has a pho­to­graph­ic memory—but he lacks ba­sic so­cial skills. He doesn’t know when he’s be­ing too loud or when he’s talk­ing too much. He can’t read fa­cial ex­pres­sions to tell when some­body is sad, curi­ous, or bored. He has a dif­fi­cult time see­ing how oth­ers view him. Tyler is what po­lite com­pany calls awk­ward. I’ve watched adults re­spond to him with an­noyed looks or pity. Bul­lies call him goofy, or worse.

But the pres­id­ent was en­chanted. Wait­ing for Tyler to take a breath, he quickly changed the sub­ject with a joke. “Look at your shoes,” Bush told Tyler while put­ting a hand on his shoulder and steer­ing him to­ward the pho­to­graph­er. “They’re ugly. Just like your dad’s.” Tyler laughed.

Ten minutes later, we were walk­ing out of the Oval Of­fice when Bush grabbed me by the el­bow. “Love that boy,” he said, hold­ing my eyes.

I thought I un­der­stood what he meant. It took me years to real­ize my mis­take.

Dreams and Realities

Fath­ers and sons don’t al­ways know how to talk to each oth­er, which is why we have sports. I nev­er felt closer to my dad than when we played catch. He was a soft-spoken De­troit mo­tor­cycle cop who didn’t be­lieve in say­ing, “I love you,” as much as he did in show­ing it, and sports were one way he knew how. The 1989 film Field of Dreams—and its ideal­ized no­tion of fath­er­hood—makes me cry every time.

I as­sumed I would have that same re­la­tion­ship with my son. He’d be an ath­lete, and we’d find com­mon ground on a base­ball dia­mond. Even be­fore his birth, 15 years ago last month, I nick­named him Ti­ger—after Ti­ger Woods, Ty Cobb, and the De­troit Ti­gers. There was no doubt in my mind that we would be jocks to­geth­er.

But Tyler didn’t like ath­let­ics, and he was ter­rible at it when forced to try. I know be­cause I forced him. Once a week or so un­til Tyler was 12, I’d drag him out­side with a base­ball, foot­ball, bas­ket­ball, vol­ley­ball, hockey stick, bad­min­ton rack­et, or cro­quet mal­let. I signed him up for Babe Ruth base­ball, flag foot­ball, and hockey les­sons.

His bas­ket­ball ca­reer ended at about age 11, when he spent one ex­cru­ci­at­ing game at half court, pa­cing back and forth barely across the cen­ter line. His stiff, awk­ward strides were no match for the oth­er nine boys who blew past him in their full-court dashes, look­ing con­sid­er­ably more fe­line. At one point, he looked up at me in the stands, shrugged his shoulders, and shot me a be­mused smile as if to say, “This ain’t for me.”

Slowly, I learned to see Tyler through the eyes of oth­ers—a skill he, too, was try­ing to mas­ter.

I nev­er got mad, but I nev­er gave in. First, Lori and I be­lieved, Tyler needed the ex­er­cise. Second, he needed to learn what it means to be part of a team, be­cause he was be­com­ing strangely isol­ated from his peers. From his first days in school, he struggled aca­dem­ic­ally and so­cially. He had no slee­p­overs. One play date rarely gave way to a second. He scared eas­ily. He had few hob­bies or in­terests but was fix­ated on those he had: telling jokes; vis­it­ing book­stores; play­ing video games; build­ing Lego mod­els; watch­ing TV shows about an­im­als, U.S. his­tory, and the pres­id­ency. Still, I re­fused—was un­able—to see Tyler as any­thing but a nor­mal kid. I missed or ig­nored so many clues.

Tyler knew. By the time he reached his teens, he could sense that something was amiss. After a dozen years of but­ting heads about sports, which he had come to hate, Tyler and I struck a deal. He could give up sports if he prom­ised to ex­er­cise three days a week and join an ex­tra­cur­ricular club in school. We were sit­ting on the sofa in the fam­ily room when he grabbed my hand and shook it. “You got a deal,” Tyler said. Then he grew quiet. I asked what was wrong. “I was afraid you wouldn’t like me as much if I stopped play­ing sports.”

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.

The Journey Begins

Lori, the true hero of this story, went to work. First, she got Tyler trans­ferred to H-B Wood­lawn, an Ar­ling­ton, Va., school with a new pro­gram for high-in­tel­lect and main­streamed As­pies—a move that Tyler now says was “life-chan­ging.” Second, she per­suaded me to drop my ob­jec­tion to stronger drugs to help him fo­cus. His severe at­ten­tion-de­fi­cit dis­order was pre­vent­ing him from learn­ing how to modi­fy his so­cial be­ha­vi­or.

But the hard­est thing was fig­ur­ing out how to in­teg­rate Tyler in­to so­ci­ety. “He can’t make friends. He’s de­pressed. How hor­rible this all must be for him,” Lori wept as we left Quinn’s of­fice. “He’s go­ing to beso lonely.” She en­rolled Tyler in a ther­apy group with a hand­ful of oth­er so­cially awk­ward teen­age boys. More than that, though, he needed something so­cial he could lose him­self in.

Fi­nally, Lori sent me on the road with our son. “He would feel val­ued if you did this with him,” she told me, in­ad­vert­ently un­earth­ing a deep well­spring of guilt. Had I been around more, would we have dia­gnosed Tyler soon­er? When I was home, was I a good enough dad—or did my job com­pete with Tyler for at­ten­tion? Now Lori had a re­demp­tion plan: “You can use a job that took you away from Tyler to help him,” she said, sug­gest­ing that we vis­it his­tor­ic­al sites, prefer­ably those con­nec­ted to pres­id­ents, be­cause Tyler loves his­tory and I spent my ca­reer cov­er­ing the White House.

I called them guilt trips. Tyler and I drew up a list of places we wanted to vis­it, start­ing with those closest to our home in Ar­ling­ton or con­nec­ted to his fa­vor­ite his­tor­ic­al fig­ure, Theodore Roosevelt. At Lori’s ur­ging, I ar­ranged meet­ings between Tyler and the two pres­id­ents I covered from the White House beat, Bill Clin­ton and George W. Bush. She thought: What bet­ter way for Tyler to both view his­tory and learn so­cial graces than to sit down with a former pres­id­ent? And so we traveled to more than a dozen des­tin­a­tions, in­clud­ing the homes and/or lib­rar­ies of Pres­id­ents Wash­ing­ton, John and John Quincy Adams, Kennedy, Ford, Clin­ton, and Bush. The pro­ject gave Tyler and me weeks alone to­geth­er that might have oth­er­wise been de­voted to my work and his video games.

Tyler took the les­sons he was learn­ing in so­cial-skills classes and ther­apy on the road, dis­cov­er­ing, one stranger at a time, how to com­mu­nic­ate, con­nect, and be­long. In Great Falls, Va., he drew on hu­mor to dis­arm. “There is a 90 per­cent chance that George Wash­ing­ton stood on that rock while he sur­veyed for the C&O Canal,” a park ranger said, point­ing to a boulder pocked by an 18th-cen­tury sur­vey­or’s tool. “Well,” Tyler replied, “there’s a 10 per­cent chance he was nev­er even here.” The ranger laughed and said, “That’s the first time some­body has called me on that, son.” He and Tyler spent the next 10 minutes swap­ping ob­scure an­ec­dotes about the na­tion’s first pres­id­ent.

Slowly, I learned to see Tyler through the eyes of oth­ers—a skill he, too, was try­ing to mas­ter—and felt proud of what I saw. In Quincy, Mass., Tyler dom­in­ated the guide’s time dur­ing a tour of the Adams homesteads. For every story the ranger told, Tyler had a ques­tion (“That’s not an au­then­t­ic fire­place, is it sir?”) or a his­tor­ic­al an­ec­dote of his own (“You know, John Adams and Thomas Jef­fer­son both died on Ju­ly Fourth”). I star­ted shush­ing him—“Give some­body else a chance to speak, son”—un­til an eld­erly tour­ist no­ticed that Tyler had grown si­lent. “What happened to that nice young fel­low with all the smart ques­tions?” she said, turn­ing to me with a lec­tur­ing stare. “You didn’t tell him to shush, did you?” I real­ized those cringes came too eas­ily.

Fi­nally, I learned to ad­mire Tyler’s quiet grit. One ther­ap­ist had called him cour­ageous, which I simply hadn’t un­der­stood. How could a boy afraid of bees, needles, and dark rooms be brave? But the boy who faces up to his fears—to in­tro­duce him­self to new people every day, for in­stance—might be the bravest per­son I know.

That’s cer­tainly what I had in mind, when, stand­ing in the back of a news con­fer­ence in Little Rock, Ark., Tyler tugged at my el­bow. His face was pale. “I don’t want to do this,” he said. “You in­ter­view him, please.” Our second-to-last trip had taken us to Bill Clin­ton’s pres­id­en­tial lib­rary. It was March 2012, and we were about to meet the former pres­id­ent.

Bill Clinton

“Let me show you around, Tyler,” Clin­ton said as he opened the door to his suite atop the lib­rary. His pent­house is long and nar­row. It re­minds me of the shot­gun shacks that once dot­ted rur­al Arkan­sas, but Clin­ton’s is longer, wider, and bright­er, with pol­ished blond-wood floors and an art col­lec­tion be­fit­ting a head of state. An im­pos­ing west-fa­cing wall flanks the bed­room, an oval-shaped of­fice, a din­ing room, and a den with floor-to-ceil­ing win­dows that give Clin­ton a full view of Little Rock, the city that launched both of our ca­reers—his as gov­ernor and mine as a re­port­er cov­er­ing him.

Stand­ing at the win­dows, Clin­ton and I poin­ted to down­town build­ings and lost ourselves in the ’80s: The Cap­it­ol dome, be­neath which we both worked; the shuttered re­mains of a stor­ied news­pa­per; the headquar­ters of one of Clin­ton’s first polit­ic­al be­ne­fact­ors. Bored by the nos­tal­gia of two aging men, Tyler poin­ted to a pic­ture on a book­shelf in the den and jol­ted us out of our rev­er­ie. “It’s hard to find a pic­ture of two po­lar bears fight­ing.”

“You like that?” Clin­ton asked ex­citedly. “You in­ter­ested in po­lar bears?”

“Yes,” Tyler replied, re­peat­ing him­self at high speed: “It’shardtofind­ap­ic­tureoft­wo­polar­bearsfight­ing.”

“Take it.” Clin­ton pulled the pic­ture off the shelf and real­ized that it was ac­tu­ally the cov­er of a book called Po­lar Dance: Born of the North Wind.

“No, sir,” Tyler said, “I couldn’t pos­sibly ac­cept this.” He must have soun­ded overly form­al and prac­ticed to Clin­ton, but I was re­lieved to watch the train­ing take hold. Tyler’s teach­ers were script­ing his con­ver­sa­tions. At home, Tyler had be­gun to greet us after work and school by say­ing stiffly, in his un­usu­ally deep voice, “And how was your day?” Caring about our day doesn’t come nat­ur­ally to Tyler, be­cause As­per­ger’s syn­drome im­pedes em­pathy. But so­cial graces can be taught. Clin­ton, of course, pooh-poo­hed Tyler’s ob­jec­tion, and my boy hugged the book to his chest.

Clin­ton led us to a sun­lit corner with a small table and three over­stuffed chairs. Tyler sat ri­gid at first—his white-knuckled hands grip­ping the brown leath­er arms. Ten minutes in, he re­laxed a bit; his fin­gers drummed the arms. Twenty minutes later, his fin­gers carved slow, soft circles in­to the leath­er. After 45 minutes with one of the world’s most fam­ous men, Tyler’s hands were fol­ded calmly in his lap, fin­ger in­ter­twined, and his knees were crossed—mir­ror­ing Clin­ton’s pos­ture—as my son and the former pres­id­ent ex­citedly shared a pas­sion for Theodore Roosevelt.

“He had asthma and all that when he was a kid, but when he grew up he be­came fam­ous for be­ing really tough,” Tyler told Clin­ton. Roosevelt is a role mod­el for bul­lied boys. “I ac­tu­ally heard once that a guy in­sul­ted him, so he punched him.”

“Have you guys been out to Sagamore Hill yet, Tyler?”

“Yes.”

“Did you love it?”

“It was awe­some,” Tyler said. “All those trophies every­where.”

“Neat. I’m a hu-u-ge Theodore Roosevelt fan,” Clin­ton said, stretch­ing out his vow­el.

He pulled from his book­shelf a 1919 edi­tion of Roosevelt’s let­ters to his chil­dren, signed it, and gave it to Tyler. “I read in the notes my staff gave me that you were a big Roosevelt fan, and the mo­ment in his­tory when he was pres­id­ent … was the mo­ment in his­tory that most closely ap­prox­im­ates the peri­od I served, in the sense that we were mov­ing from a rur­al to urb­an eco­nomy un­der Teddy … ” And off he went. If you covered Clin­ton, worked for Clin­ton, or spent any time around Clin­ton, you’ve heard this riff: Roosevelt was the bridge to the 20th cen­tury, just as the Clin­ton pres­id­ency was the bridge to the 21st. In­come in­equal­ity, new tech­no­logy, land con­ser­va­tion, peace.

The mono­logue las­ted 10 minutes, but Clin­ton didn’t no­tice that Tyler, already at­ten­tion-chal­lenged, had be­come bored. Sud­denly, I saw Tyler in an­oth­er light. If even Bill Clin­ton, the most tal­en­ted people per­son in a gen­er­a­tion, can miss ob­vi­ous so­cial cues, why worry so much about my son? There was even a cer­tain kin­ship. “Nice guy,” Tyler whispered to me dur­ing a break in the tour. “He talked a lot about him­self and his stuff.”

“Like you, son?”

“Yep.”

George W. Bush

When he’s not bik­ing or golf­ing, George W. Bush spends time in his non­des­cript of­fice in a sub­urb­an Dal­las bank build­ing. In the cozy re­cep­tion area, or­ange leath­er chairs line the walls, upon which hang pic­tures of the 43rd pres­id­ent host­ing as­sor­ted world lead­ers at Camp Dav­id. Tyler poin­ted to former Ja­pan­ese Prime Min­is­ter Ju­nichiro Ko­i­zumi and asked me, “Was he an Elvis fan?” How did he know?

“He ain’t noth­ing but a hound dog,” Tyler said, mak­ing us both laugh.

After a few minutes, Bush’s aide came for us. “I changed my mind,” Tyler said as we made our way to the of­fice. “You do this.” But he re­laxed as soon as he saw Bush. The ex-pres­id­ent was tilted back in his chair with his feet propped on a neat desk and a cof­fee cup marked “POTUS” in his hands. Tyler seemed to grasp that Bush was not tak­ing him­self—or us—too ser­i­ously. After quick hand­shakes and hel­los, Bush got down to busi­ness.

“Go­ing to school?” the former pres­id­ent asked my son.

“Yes,” Tyler replied.

“Do you like school?”

“Pretty good.”

“Fa­vor­ite sub­ject?”

“Amer­ic­an stud­ies.”

“Do you like to read?”

“Yeah. I read all the time. I don’t have a fa­vor­ite top­ic.”

“Fic­tion? Non­fic­tion? Sports?

“I don’t know much about sports.”

“Mys­ter­ies?”

“I really don’t like mys­ter­ies.”

“Most 14-year-olds don’t like to read,” Bush said, stretch­ing for a com­pli­ment.

Wor­ried that the con­ver­sa­tion was go­ing nowhere, I re­minded Tyler what Clin­ton had asked him to do eight days earli­er.

“Oh, yeah,” he said to Bush. “Bill Clin­ton sends his best.”

Bush smiled warmly. “We’ve been friends,” he said. “We’ve shared ex­per­i­ences. We’re like broth­ers.”

I could feel my stom­ach tight­en­ing, wor­ried that Bush would con­sider Tyler rude or ob­tuse. I nervously change the sub­ject to sports, a pas­sion Bush and I share. “Stop but­ting in,” I wrote in my note­book. Bush po­litely en­gaged with me but quickly turned back to Tyler.

“So, Tyler, at 14 this is prob­ably an un­fair ques­tion to ask, but do you have any idea what you’d like to be when you get older?

“Maybe a comedi­an.”

“Maybe a what?” Bush said, a bit sur­prised.

“A comedi­an.”

“Well,” Bush replied, “I’m a pretty ob­ject­ive audi­ence. You might want to try a couple of your lines out on me.”

“Nah,” Tyler de­murred. “I don’t have any ma­ter­i­al”

I tried to prod Tyler in­to shar­ing a bit of the stand-up act that won him second prize at a school tal­ent show. I nudged him about the im­prov classes he was tak­ing.

Bush let him off the hook. “Ah, in­ter­est­ing,” he said. “I’ve met a lot of people. You know how many people ever said, ‘I think I’d like to make people laugh?’ You’re the only guy. That’s awe­some.”

Bush had con­nec­ted. With an imp­ish smile, he told Tyler about the time that rock­er/hu­man­it­ari­an Bono was sched­uled to vis­it the White House. The pres­id­ent’s aides, know­ing that their boss was un­im­pressed by celebrit­ies, wor­ried that Bush would blow it. “[Chief of Staff] Josh Bolten comes in and said, ‘Now, you know who Bono is, don’t you?’ Just as he’s leav­ing the Oval Of­fice, I said, ‘Yeah, he’s mar­ried to Cher.’ ” Bush raised an eye­brow. “Get it?” he asked Tyler. “Bone-oh. Bahn-oh.”

Af­ter­ward, I asked Tyler about the Bono joke. He said, “Sounds like something goofy you would say.” But for me, the ex­change was an eye-open­er. Tyler was terse, even rude, but Bush was so­li­cit­ous. Rather than be­ing thrown by Tyler’s idio­syn­crasies, he rolled with them, ex­actly as he had in the Oval Of­fice nine years earli­er. He re­spon­ded to every clipped an­swer with an­oth­er prob­ing ques­tion. Bush, a man who fam­ously doesn’t suf­fer fools or breaches of pro­pri­ety, gave my son the be­ne­fit of the doubt. I was be­gin­ning to think that people are more per­cept­ive and less judg­ment­al to­ward Tyler than his own fath­er is. Bush cer­tainly was.

Love That Boy

Tyler and I are sit­ting in the car out­side a book­store. The Barnes & Noble in North­ern Vir­gin­ia is where we go most week­ends, shar­ing our love of books and time alone. He’s read­ing a draft of this art­icle.

“It’s OK,” my little pro­fess­or says, “but it’s a bit of a cliché.” He asks me to say he’s no longer afraid of bees or of the dark. He ob­jects to a pas­sage in which I tell him, “Cour­age isn’t the ab­sence of fear. It’s over­com­ing your fears.” It must be a mis­quo­ta­tion, he says, be­cause his fath­er doesn’t talk so elo­quently. And he’s not im­pressed with my ori­gin­al con­clu­sion.

Fair enough, I say. “So help me find a bet­ter end­ing. What did you get out of the pro­ject, pal?”

“All I got out of it was time with you,” he says, laugh­ing. “No of­fense.” I tell Tyler there’s got to be a bet­ter way to end our story than say­ing we spent time to­geth­er. “This isn’t Twi­light,” he says, re­fer­ring to the film saga he wouldn’t be caught dead watch­ing. “This is you and me. Just write that we like to spend time to­geth­er. That’s a big deal for a kid like me.”

It would be a big deal for me—if I be­lieved him. The fact is, he’d rather be alone, and I can ac­cept that now, be­cause the aver­sion to so­cial con­tact is part of who Tyler is. But he is telling me what he knows I want to hear, and that’s pro­gress for my em­pathy-chal­lenged As­pie.

Thanks to the team Lori put to­geth­er, Tyler is learn­ing to con­nect and to be­long. And thanks to the pro­ject she forced upon on us, I see that pro­gress firsthand. Tyler will be a happy, thriv­ing adult. I might even have helped. Be­ing with him, ac­cept­ing him, watch­ing him over­come his fears, and see­ing him through the for­giv­ing eyes of oth­ers—this is my field of dreams. I don’t need to “have a catch” with Tyler to be a good fath­er; I simply need to let him be. Rather than sweat over his As­per­ger’s, I now real­ize how much I’d miss if he wasn’t an As­pie—his hu­mor, his blunt­ness, his un­af­fected ob­ses­sions with everything from video games to fam­ily. As the rest of so­ci­ety seems to be per­fect­ing irony and af­fect, Tyler is con­sti­tu­tion­ally un­able to bull­shit. God, I love him. And now I know oth­ers will love him, too.

On the trips to Arkan­sas and Texas, I saw through both pres­id­ents a suc­cess­ful fu­ture for Tyler—in Clin­ton, big pos­sib­il­it­ies for a boy with a sharp mind and rough edges. In Bush, Tyler’s gift of hu­mor as a means to find con­fid­ence in him­self and con­nec­tions with oth­ers. I learned that while Tyler was not my ideal­ized son, he was the ideal one. In the Oval Of­fice, years ago, I thought Bush had ordered me to “love that boy” in spite of his idio­syn­crasies. Now, I real­ize, I love my son be­cause of them.

This is what I tried to tell Tyler in the car out­side the book­store. “I get it, Dad,” he said dis­missively. “Now can we go home? I want to play video games.” And so we go.

Cor­rec­tion: A pre­vi­ous ver­sion of this art­icle mis­stated the loc­a­tion of Pres­id­ent Bush’s of­fice. It is in a sub­urb­an Dal­las bank build­ing.

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