“Why must the corners we turn be so sharp?
Why must I keep all these things in my heart?
Why must I silently give in to time?
Forfeit a childhood to boxes and twine.”
Twenty-five years ago, my mother wrote a song about the day she packed up my Barbies and toys in order to redecorate my bedroom (upon my turning thirteen). This is one stanza that I have always remembered for some reason. Perhaps because I have a memory of her sitting on the floor next to my bed, carefully packing items she thought to save in underbed storage boxes.
Yesterday afternoon, my good friend Sandy came over to help me whittle down the kids’ toys in preparation for a room reorganization and makeover.
I expected to feel sad and a little reluctant (thus the need for Sandy to keep me in line). I knew it would be hard to part with toys I associated definite memories of my little one’s baby and toddlerhood. I didn’t want to give away my daughter’s first babydoll, the first blocks she stacked, or her favorite chunky books.
But what took me by surprise was the sheer number of toys of which the only memories I have is of buying them- for my son. Buying them in the hope that one would be just the right toy to trigger Callum’s interest. Unwrapping them and setting them out for him, only to find them ignored. Feeling bad for the gift-giver for my child’s unwillingness to even look at his present. Memories of putting them on the shelf and watching him play with a plastic hanger instead.
I know all the correct answers to give people who ask why he is playing with some non-toy household item. I have read how to engage him with the items he is interested in. And I know how to find companies specializing in high-interest toys for special needs children.
What I don’t know how to explain to someone is how it feels to acknowledge that your little boy does not know how to play. I don’t know how to explain that sadness in a parent’s heart. And I don’t know how to head off those moments of unbearable clarity when watching him throw a toy truck down over and over again — away from the other children happily playing with all of the available toys in the room. Those moments when the walls close in, my mind tunes out the chatter and background noise, and all I can see is that truck landing over and over again.
I’m not so good at that. I don’t know if it is possible to convey.
It has been nearly fifty years since King Moonracer and A Dolly for Sue tugged at the hearts of movie watchers who empathized with those unloved toys from the Island of Misfit Toys. Everyone watching Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer wanted those toys to be played with and loved. Not because the inanimate objects mattered so much themselves. But because there is an incredible nostalgia for those carefree moments of childhood when building blocks become castles and empty boxes rocket ships hurtling toward Mars.
These are the moments when I am most angry with autism. Yes, the autism spectrum has bestowed many gifts upon the world. But stealing the play of childhood is not one of them. Autism can be a thief – leaving behind memories of unfulfilled play- dump trucks, puzzles, and stuffed animals doomed to exile on the Island of Mispurchased Toys. Toys that dredge up only memories of dashed hopes for birthday parties and Christmas mornings.
And it leaves behind mothers and fathers, putting those toys away in boxes to give to somebody else’s children -children who can and will play with and cherish them. Castles that will not be built and missions to Mars not bravely accomplished. Sounds of “Vroom, vroom!” that will never be uttered. And evildoers not vanquished.
This is but one truth of many in the story of autism.
That silence can be overwhelmingly loud.