Something Parallel, However Distant: Race and Autism

When our daughter Shannon was labeled autistic at twenty-one months, race wasn’t in my thoughts. Being white, it rarely is. Autism, though, was pervasive, as it will always be, a predominance that eventually injected an oblique empathy of its own when the Ferguson riots ripped the veneer off America’s congenital racial frets.

It wasn’t the only time Shannon provoked a racial awakening, the first one was just happier. She’s heavily impaired, so much so that when we bring her to a new professional – someone who sees several autistic people a day – most often their body language says, “Wow.” She doesn’t talk, has little receptive language, persists with jungle-at-night verbal tics, and bounds around like a jack rabbit. I’ve seen it in faces of every racial permutation. People would certainly identify her as white, but due to what she emanates they don’t see a white girl. Shannon will never know she’s white. Or American. Or a woman, or any of the cultural confections that help define people before their actions do. She’ll just know that she is, and such Edenic purity washes it all away – color, creed, everything – allowing us to glimpse the prejudicial divestiture we’ll forever covet. I’ve seen black people with Down’s Syndrome, Hispanic kids as autistic as Shan, and an array of others with an array of afflictions. The effect is the same. You see soul first, the rest second, and that only from habit.

Ferguson took it the other way, and only made sense through a prior incident. Sometime before, Gwen Ifill and David Brooks discussed race. Ifill fruitfully dropped her objectivity to ask Brooks if he ever talked about race within his family. He didn’t. She smiled, warmly. You don’t have to. We do. It’s with us. Always.

When I think about race it’s distant, nearly academic, and never personal. I’m not qualified to say what white privilege is or to what degree it exists, but Ferguson finalized what Ifill hatched, and her assertion only made sense because of Shannon.

If nothing else, white privilege frees you from color. I’ve never thought about my skin tone because I’ve never had to. It doesn’t define me. Autism, though, does. We’re an autistic family and always will be. It’s in our lives, our thoughts, our philosophy and theology. It sets our sleep patterns, our schedules, impedes our ability to earn money, drains it away in equal shares, profoundly affects how we relate to others, the world, and each other. We go to most public places, but not others. Shan’s little sister, Flannery, will live out her life variously succumbing to autism or thrusting her will upon it, a chronic cage-match.

I’ll never understand what Ifill meant, to have color be with you, always. I’m not black. If, though, it has any correlation to the dominion that a grossly affected family member imposes, then I can imagine with at least parallel empathy how frustrating, how maddening, such an encumbrance might be, and there is, of course, a galactic difference. Shannon is our child. We chose to have her and she came the way she came. We adore her, reveling in the numberless things she teaches as well as simply who she is. Color isn’t chosen, but it does define, and in America that’s rarely well. I don’t have that burden, but through Shannon at least have a piddling sense of what a burden it must be.

Somewhere

No need to rush. The sun wouldn’t set for a few hours and the farmers never mind how late we stay. It’s an Historic New England property, part of a constellation striving to do what we all do to varying degrees – embalm heavily-curated visions of the past. This farm has been operating on Narragansett Bay’s Conanicut Island since just after the Revolution, and today’s stewards tend sheep and cows roughly in line with that original family, internal combustion aside. Three days a week the public can wander all two-hundred some acres, most of it outcrop-spattered pasture running down to the bay. Our daughters adore it, as do we.

Shannon was five now, tall, still so wildly autistic that Karen and I ended a recent midnight conversation the only honest way we could:

“It’s like we’ve healed a crippled wolverine,” I said, “and are just waiting to see if she’ll stay.”

Anyone listening would have taken that as I would have with an outsider’s ear, but from the inside it only plunged our affections deeper. Beyond swimming we weren’t sure if we’d taught Shannon a thing, but for us she’d been a fountainhead.

Having sat on the sun-warmed stones, she was naked now, pitching shale nits to an ebbed tide. Here or elsewhere it wasn’t the first time I’d forgotten dry clothes, and when we reached the shore a half mile from the farmhouse I’d simply stripped her. At the very least, I knew, she’d wade, but with the windless day making the bay more lake than ocean she went right in, paddling up top and below, rubbing salt-soaked eyes. Once out, I sat a few yards behind her with the brine evaporating off each of us and a brace of herring gulls drifting close. Eyeing what she threw, they lilted out front like decoys before a blind.

****

It can’t be helped. People romanticize. We do it to everything. Past, present, future. Baseball, warfare, nationhood, love. Everything. This farm testifies to that, our gift for breeding nostalgia with the future’s equally idyllic numina, all to heal a present in which we never seem settled. No matter how peaceful the age, no matter how self-satisfied the generation, a hunch shadows the human experience that in this moment – now, right now, across the world – a spiritual rot oozes from our failing morality. If we could only regain the past’s simplicity along with its accompanying rectitude we’d secure our children a spotless future.

I’m as susceptible as the rest. In witnessing the farmers’ earthy work here I succumb, envisioning what might be if we dropped it all for those scythes and shears. There aren’t many mechanical sounds on the acreage, just the occasional tractor huff outdoing the murmuring livestock, the katydids and orioles, the bobolink bustle over the hay. Whatever success, however, in preserving the past is equally attributable to absence – the sights and sounds memory purges. Slavery once poxed these islands, while the ships feeding it departed the bay in fleets, and if any one place could have tilted Native fate another way it’s Narragansett’s southern shores, where three-and-a-half centuries ago two blood-choked years fixed that compass.

Reflection, too, scrubs away life’s lesser dramas, those affecting us from the beginning. In imagining the farmers who worked this land, we only see their honest toil, not the attendant spectrum of untoward behavior – the back-biting, the infidelities, the petti-intrigues, human life’s everyday grime. Homage, then, is quite a detergent, particularly when projected onto the coming age.

****

Children we romanticize most of all. Kids carnalize hope, spawning vision. At a glance Shan might squelch such dreamwork, but in time her primitive core radiates clarity.

As she does, she stood abruptly. She may have seen all she needed of splash patterns. The sun may have been too much, or the naval transport planes – groaning a few thousand feet above, performing near daily maneuvers – might have finally disrupted her. Regardless, she erected herself, striding knee-deep back to the sea, putting one gull to sloppy-footed flight while the rest edged away. The flier turned, cupping a tight circle overhead, eliciting from Shan a delighted peel.

“Bird,” I said. “Bird,” but if she understood or even heard there was no indication.

Wracked by a recent storm, knots of eel grass drew her next and she sloshed ashore, gathering a gnarled ball. Burying her face, she breathed deep then licked a green, ribbon-like blade. She stepped forward, vaulting the grass ocean-ward, re-piquing the gulls. Whatever bacteria she picks up from such explorations doesn’t bother me, but I’ll never shake other worries. This bay, afterall, birthed America’s industrial might, pumping in its heavy-metal postpartum across two centuries.

Toe-walking toward the woodline, Shannon stepped from rock to rock now, wind-milling her arms and torqueing her body as anyone with vestibular equilibrium wouldn’t. She looks like a courting crane at such times, but somehow rarely falls. The low tide had left pockets of aired-out blue mussels. Squatting, she plucked one like a mushroom, pressing it to her nostrils then slipping the oblong capsule in her mouth, swishing it from cheek to cheek before spitting. Out front, mid-bay, an inbound oil tanker cut toward Providence, the heavy August sun lighting blue water all around.

I stood, gathering Shannon’s clothes, her diaper, then followed. She’d gained the wooded trailhead, rooting around in last year’s leaves. Fondling an early walnut drop, she thumbed the green hull before tossing it, next making her naked way to pasture’s edge. Locked in forested shadow, I forgot how helpless my daughter really is, and as she fingered sun-plumped blackberries I let go. Somewhere, I thought, the Bible maybe, or deeper, down in our intuitive substrate, it must say “And a child did lead them.” It must. From the canopy the season’s first cicada let loose its metallic whir. Summer didn’t have long to go.

Its Pulse

Taken by a tide pool, Shannon had been calm a while now.   She’d learned to toss rocks recently and did so here, watching ripples reach round the rim before plunking in another, then again. Perched arm’s length above her, I’d finally calmed too, watching waves lilt into crevices, re-aligning flotsam as they did. We had a beach-length view, sun-bathers, a thousand or more, Newport’s purpose, but the still water at Shan’s feet and inexorable swells at mine were all we could manage.

Life – all life – keeps going in the hope that things will get easier. I suppose that’s true. At that point, at any rate, Karen and I were certainly in line. After Shannon’s diagnosis months before we simply assumed the therapies would extinguish most symptoms, re-birthing her as it had for others in popular books we’d read. While progress had been made, though, it was sporadic and slow and to-date non-functional, only indicating some hope among piles of data, though even that was erased by moments such as these.

What spurred this one was as mysterious as the rest, though it lasted far longer. We’d been walking in and out of shops, negotiating downtown’s summer crowd with Shan squat in my crooked left arm where she always was. Her usual commotion-stirred bemusement, though, pivoted inside a breath, with the only antecedent a body-length clench before the explosion. Whispers and gentle squeezing normally contained such eruptions, but flailing limbs and primitive screams accompanied this burst from the outset. She was small enough that passersby squirmed to the side, opening gaps for one more pampered brat and her feloniously appeasing parent. Unable to secure her, I grasped her ankles then hung her upside down along my back before breaking into a trot. We hit the curve where Thames becomes Memorial and jogged over the hill to Easton’s Beach, cutting back across the sand toward the rip-rap protecting the Cliff Walk. The ebbing tide had left the pool, and she’d been engaged with her stone throws for half an hour now, with no outward remnant of the tempest that sent us here.

****

Parenting has no preparation. Walls can be knocked down or erected, sheet rock hung, paint slathered on with cribs and changing tables put in place. Nothing, though, prepares you for the battering hurricanes and stultifying doldrums to come, along with the unique shocks each child endows. Shannon was thirty months old now and hadn’t uttered a word. Twelve hours at a clip in such isolation – with the long, stutter-step sleep to come – has effects, and here, unable to breach the space between us, I simply verified her well-being with a peripheral glance before re-focusing on the surf.

Not much life was here, just its remains. Schools of see-through silversides ghosted clear water while a spider crab ambled the bottom, but the husks of other creatures provided the chief animation. Rhythmically tumbled, a set of crab legs waltzed to the tide’s recession, while just above them a rapidly re-hydrating sea-bird – dark, a juvenile cormorant – slapped about the surface like a lumber scrap. Similarly desiccated Canada Geese – winter-starved, retrieved and abandoned by successive tides – had disappeared only weeks before. Shan began giggling now with each splash. I was lucky. A skein of rocks surrounded her, and I wouldn’t have to bother finding more.

Pushed into a crevice, the crab legs sucked out with the next wave, somersaulting again in the turbulence, while the bird carcass glittered among mats of marooned kelp. Out deep, edging in, something new appeared.

Fish don’t often make it in whole, and this one certainly hadn’t, but enough remained. Flapping from the vanished gill plate to drape a few vertebrae pegs then back again, the dark, lateral lines of a skin patch marked a striped bass. With the lower jaw gone and eyes gull-plucked long ago, the skinless skull provided scale. This had been a large fish, filleted at sea days before or cut in half by a mako further out. Maybe it simply succumbed, but the cause hardly mattered now.

Water does things to people. For a moment, within the waves’ ever opaque energies, there was only that skull, that skin, that bit of spine. Caught by a crest, the head rotated, splaying the skin in the aftermath, with the sun revealing it as more gossamer now than former organ. Pirouetted by the following rush, the flap braided, slowly unwinding in the ensuing calm. That was the only time I’d ever felt it, the ocean, its pulse, and it stilled me before something tugged.  Shannon pulled herself into my lap, wrapping my left arm around her torso.

Benching her, I dropped to the beach below, where yards away the bass vestige nudged onto sand.

“Ok, Shan,” I said. “Ok. Let’s go.”

Touched

All parents can scan a crowded park to imagine which adults might foreshadow their own kids, and most probably do. There she is, beneath that willow, studying, guitar case by her side, or there, leading the outdoor business lunch. Maybe that’s her, with the tongue bolt and coiled python, chatting up a biker claque. No one knows, even special needs parents, though theirs is a far tighter window.

Like many people, I was once discomfited by special needs adults. The sounds they made, their distractedness, the fidgety carriages, the disjointed speech or no speech at all, gazes that seemed to see things I didn’t – all of it unnerved me, and in that private unraveling I knew some filaments of poor character lay, compounding the discomfiture.

Shannon changed that. Now I seek such people out. Fortunately, families and society have allowed more access, no longer squirreling those with significant impairments away, allowing them to uncork the hosts of questions – from neurological to theological – that only they can. When you know that value well it’s irresistible, and whenever Shan and I encounter such a person I watch both them and my daughter, absorbing.

These happenstances, though, have costs. Though Shan is still young, with heaps of therapy and development to go, the signs are plain. I’ve seen people far less afflicted than her under constant supervision, and to imagine her even modestly independent remains well beyond both my and Karen’s scope. In a crowd, then, watching others, far less guesswork makes up our conjectures of Shannon’s future than for her neurotypical sister Flannery. Still, having spent nearly all of Shan’s life by her side, imbibing what seepage I can from that cloistered mind, I know what others will draw from her if they just stand close enough and absorb.

****

I’ve seen it already. Every day, strangers, perfect strangers, take muted solace in Shannon, piqued by her savage elations and boorish joy, her ignorance of custom, wordplay, and the persistent ennui fogging our lives’ numberless iterations. Shan and her kind augur emancipation, divestiture, reincarnating distant liberties we all feel need reclamation, those abandoned when the first hunched hominids settled into village life. People see this freedom, feel it, and I feel it in them as Shannon diddy-bops through packed parks and beaches, along crowded sidewalks and fairgrounds, astonished by everything around. It’s never spoken, but there they are, familiar looks on unfamiliar faces, whorled among the sorrow and pity, the emotive disarray that once marked my own reactions. I wasn’t aware of it then, but am now, though articulation remains a trick.

****

Purity is as close as I come. People crave it. Whether through fresh-fallen snow or pitch-perfect poetry, a forested springlet or a spotless marriage, we’re all bewitched by the unadulterated. What defines it is hard to say. We only know that it’s as fleeting as it is rare, compounding its pull, and source – or origin – likely generates that gravity, as a collective hunch that everything runs pure at the start pervades humanity. Even the silt-choked Mississippi, afterall, bubbles clean from wooded springs, something we see in ourselves as we gather before newborns, awed.

People like Shannon ooze such source, first source, our imagination’s undying umbilical, pumping in our greatest hopes and deepest fears. If the devout, then, believe we’ve fallen out with Creation, atheists and agnostics match them, unable to shake the sense that we’ve separated from nature, corrupting ourselves with that division. While special needs people – even children like Shan – are far from pure, they at very least seem dewed with those original amniotics.

Whether it’s true or not I have no idea, but I’ve heard that Native Americans left the insane alone. ‘Touched’ they called it, and killing or molesting such people fell under their definition of sacrilege. Watching Shan hop in place on a boardwalk, repeating her unintelligbles at ungoverned pitches, or bounding through surf, howling at oncoming waves, it’s easy to see. The faces around her sense what Natives must have when coming across a prairie-crazed settler. Touched by what no one is sure, God maybe, or original burst, but whatever it is, it’s present in all states – cankerous, joyous, sedative – wafting out our collective understanding of holy with all the damnation and beatitude that entails.

The Herd

Deformity exists within other species, I’ve seen it, I just can’t be certain how the unaffected react. Still, I dream.

Salmon were my ingress. While working for Alaska’s fish and game department I occasionally ran across scoliosis-hobbled adults, waggling crook-spined upstream with the others. Bug-eyes, too, impeded here-and-there spawners however swollen eyeballs might impede. If other fish stigmatized such rarities, though, I didn’t notice, but that doesn’t mean they don’t.

Humans, we know, do. When Shannon was finally diagnosed, Karen and I remembered how brutal kids had been to the few special needs students in our respective high schools. In mine there were two. Short-bus jokes were the least of their troubles, and the depth of that furthered cruelty didn’t register until years later, blooming to full terror when therapists deemed Shan autistic.

Fortunately, people have evolved. Inside two generations, in fact, openly abusing the mentally afflicted most often ricochets now, visiting equally cutting ostracization upon the abuser. While Karen and I still fear the middle school years ahead, then, Shannon’s pre-K experience has been remarkable, with typical students piling on warmth and welcome. Still, we all need our bogeymen.

****

Paranoia alone may nourish mine. While not enough to affect my views of Shannon, our family, or others, it does provide an occasional chill, one welled up from primitive chambers. Though I’ve never seen one, caribou populate the attendant reverie.

Mosquitoes spur the migrations, at least in part. Food probably has more to do with it, even ritual, but a desire to keep calves mobile and comparatively bug-free is in the mix. Regarding Shannon, though, order of impetus is immaterial, as whether on a playground or in a mall, at the beach or a fair, I see those hooves and plodding torsos, sensing the shift when difference is detected. It’s always subtle, scarcely noticeable, mirroring the one perceived when Shan is in a crowd.

****

We’re not supposed to say abnormal. I do, though, and know others who do too. We whisper it among ourselves, infinitely proud, quietly joyed, by our children’s outlandish peculiarities. Few today question that pride, but most would blush at the reconstituted pejorative used to tout it.

It’s not the blush that summons the clattering hooves, but what drives it. In all likelihood it’s unconscious, but regardless, as Shannon twirls and hops and twitches her hands, vocalizing unintelligibles all the while, strangers – if only at the genetic level – create space. On the surface their smiles, questions, and generous accommodations are by all definitions sincere, but the molecular core can’t be helped.

Social mores progress, but at our base nature remains inviolable, and it’s there that I see the calf – hunch-backed, maybe, slack-jawed, or with a too-simple gaze out over the steppe. The herd doesn’t cull it, doesn’t abandon its mother nor stomp them both to death, but as numberless hooves tear up tundra a halo forms, and though included, the deformed one remains in quarantine. I’ll never know if these sensations really happen, but I dream them, and dreams have the greater sway.

Summer Squall

Butterflies, it turned out, were punctual too, at least Monarchs. When Karen and I first took our then six-month old daughter Shannon to Newport after Karen had taken a job, we lunched in Brenton Point State Park between apartment showings. It was days before equinox, mid-September, and we laid a scarcely-clad Shan on a blanket while we ate. Having spent her brief life hived in Queens’ cavernous bustle, the open air, open sun, and open ocean beyond took quickly.

She’d been sitting a bit that week, but here lurched herself up straight off, quiet but smiley, scanning first green grass now blue sky then green trees now wide water, glittering blue. Eye contact was consistent then, engaged, and the suspicions to come were a year away.

“Oh, look, Shannon,” Karen said, pointing. “Look. A butterfly.”

Shan’s eyes followed her mother’s to a laggard dandelion bloom not far off the blanket. Landed, the Monarch flapped its Halloween wings once, then twice, before elevating toward rolling surf. Shan looked to Karen then to me, then laughed.

“My God,” I said. “They’re everywhere.”

Whether we simply didn’t notice them or they’d arrived in a rush we couldn’t know, but broad-winged butterflies – deep-orange, deep-black, moonstone spackling the borders – fluttered everywhere. I picked up Shan, holding her faceout while the three of us walked, drawn to the insect tresses festooning one of the mown field’s few hedges. Lifting our daughter up to one such shimmering vine, we watched her reach before she retracted a wing-brushed finger.

Kneaded like twisted baguettes, the creatures dangled in braids, resting, vibrating, plotting, gathering gumption for the big southwest push through forests, towns, and farms, across prairies, rivers, and deserts, to settle at last in redwoods they’d never seen.

“This is incredible,” Karen said, butterflies all around, and it was.

****

Two years later nearly to the day I had Shan alone, mostly inured now to stay-at-home parenting’s helter-skelter tediums. Shan had been tabbed severely autistic the previous winter, a week prior to her sister Flannery’s birth, and six months later having the two together for more than a few minutes remained incomprehensible.   Between therapies, then, and with Flan in daycare, I let Shan free-form in the world around her.

We’d had days in a row at the now empty beaches, and remembering the butterflies I took a shot and headed for Brenton Point, out past the mansions to the kept field, beyond which a rejuvenating forest digests a military ruin. I’d had experience with animal punctuality before and figured Monarchs would be similar.

Each spring growing up my father and I trout fished timely insect hatches to the same thrush and warbler migrations. Come fall we hunted grouse and woodcock, and though weather played its role, each species kept its calendar, woodcock on their migratory patterns, grouse as to what habitats they’d haunt and when. Nothing, though, seemed so precise as salmon. Before Shan was born I’d lived in Alaska for ten years, working for the fish and game department. Though off by a day or two here and there, every year we counted fish in the same creeks on the same dates. You expected them in certain pools at certain times and there they’d be, ripening.

Once Shan and I paralleled the field I knew butterflies behaved likewise. They bothered the grass, brush, and sky, even the rocky coast across the road, sponging sunshine, far thicker than I remembered. I parked and stepped out, unsure how Shan might react.

****

She was a runner then, inveterate, and after unstrapping her off she went, straight back across the field a few hundred yards to the rotting army quarters just inside the forest, a mix of forty-year old oak and sassafras, locust and cherry, much of which has punctured the old barracks’ roof. She’d notice the butterflies soon enough, I knew, and simply jogged behind, dodging insects like falling leaves. Such distance wore her down, and upon reaching the timber where a cyclone fence keeps the curious out of the ruin, she turned, hands high, eyes down.

“Up, Shan,” I said, “up,” hoisting her to my chest.

The old roads are maintained for foot traffic and we wended along, shoeless. Brush kept the Monarchs high, but a few fluttered inside the gaps. With her little lungs back to strength Shan motioned to get down, giving a few chase before they rose. Cottontails run thick here, too, and noticing a young-of-the-year nibbling grass she stopped, smiling when it tucked beneath bayberry snarls.

After a half-hour tracing and re-tracing mazed trails, we hit the chief artery, separated from the field by yards of hedge. Usually we took the quarter mile back to the parking lot, splashing puddles, harrying robins and rabbits, headed for the tide pools across the main road, but this would be different.

I’d never seen anything like it. The brush is lower here, mostly black and pokeberry, allowing the butterflies greater liberty. They were innumerable. Ten thousand. Twenty. Fifty or a hundred. Maybe half a million, ascending and descending, adumbrating the pending leaf fall. Shan and I looked at sky, at a galaxy of moorless creatures somehow still fettered to purpose.

Looking down, I noticed what my daughter already had, then edged alongside where a shrub copse rose from the purple droop of pokeberries. Parting some canes I watched her slip inside. We stood, listening to a thousand wings vivify a cherry start. I raised a hand, aiming for an untended gap mid-sapling.

“Watch, Shan,” I said, then poked.

Butterflies, hundreds, shook aloft, cascading Shannon, floating, suspending, drowning her in movement and color, pattern and performance. She didn’t move, just hop-scotched her eyes from one wing set to the next, bathed in their silence.

“Mah,” she said. “Mah. Mah,” using the last of her extinguishing approximations.

With that cluster disbanded, I toted her to a bunch across the road, where through the next hour we tapped one branch after another, creating blizzards, each of us equally engrossed.

****

All parents worry. Those of special needs kids simply worry different things. Our daughter will need constant care. Of that alone Karen and I are certain. Time and persistent therapy, it’s hoped, will give her scattershot independence, but lifelong supervision is assured. We’ll die, and that oversight will pass to others. Within the corkscrewed anxieties these uncertainties breed, however, we project what peace we can.

I often picture Shan alone, or at least lonely, sometimes in a common room, maybe a van, heading out with the others for the weekly park visit. She’s accustomed to the routine by then and plods along as directed. Her mind, though, is elsewhere, fully salved by its ambient visitations.

Like many of the afflicted, Shan has spectacular recall for detail, for place. If Karen and I can’t control her future, we can at least influence what will become her past, and for my part no small comfort arises when I wander into that van or common room to slip inside her pending memory, there to watch her live again and again that day when numberless butterflies stole the sound from summer and turned the air to snow.

 

 

 

 

 

Lexicon

Habit led me down to the rocks, habit and Shannon’s fervor, which would have dragged us to roiled water if custom hadn’t. The waves had drawn more of a crowd than mid-October normally sees, along with the tropic air whorled up from the Caribbean. Swells rolled one upon another, deep-sea black and molten blue, wracking and colliding, wrecking on the train car-sized bedrock fractures the glaciers had jumbled so long ago. Realizing I should have stayed on the grassy lip near the lighthouse with the onlookers, I clenched Shan tight as the Atlantic shoved into gullies and crevices that taste salt maybe once a year, likely less. Bermuda was taking this hurricane, but the fetch reached here, to Narragansett Bay, some seven-hundred miles off.

“Easy, Shan,” I said, cinching her hip against my ribs with a forearm. “Easy.”

Her bare feet ached for wave-worn stone, upon which she usually skipped a few strides before hopping in place a dozen times, then repeat. With cobweb foam blowing all around and sea water channeling within yards before re-flushing to chaos, I sensed the crowd above wasn’t judging me well and headed north, goating the pell-mell slabs as always, more mindful of the ocean than I ever had been. The rock sheets rose higher in this direction, and I was sure I could let Shan down a bit, just enough, anyway, to slake those pining feet.

* * * *

As with any condition, autism presents the afflicted with alien terminology, words passing quickly from foreign to familiar. If malignant and metastasize, in situ and invasive, foist their unwanted kinship upon the cancer-stricken, autism families speak their own tongue. Proprioceptive. Sensory Integration. In vivo. Self-Injurious. Rote. Circadian Rhythm, the light/dark gauge allowing most of us proper sleep patterns but one autism grossly fouls, or vestibular, the inner ear workings granting balance and rational stationing power in the typical but primitive imbalance in the atypical, making Shan and others seem as wormholes, portals between this time and that, one world and the next.

Unlike the gentler surf of most days, this seemed patternless. Normally the weaker sets simply nudge over the lower table rock, spreading like whisked sheets, interspersed by the stronger throbs that only shed a meek fountain or two on impact. Now, even in what passed for lulls, geysers soaked rocks thirty yards from breaking points, with foam motes cast well aloft, snowing cedar boughs and rose tangles. Water thumped water then rock then water then more rock, lashing out then in then out again, muting the day. With her jaw inches from my ear, I could hear Shan’s pinniped squeals, but doubted the assorted gulls – hunched below ragged turf chunks ten yards behind where past storms had chewed away earth – could.

Finally atop a steep scarp that led to a terraced second, I stepped to the plateau and stood. Even here water rushed to the base, but that was twenty feet below. Clenching the shirt fabric over her lumbar for the tightest grip, I let Shan down.

* * * *

All autism queries end the same, even from professionals: “Of course, we just don’t know.” Down at last, Shan hopped and skipped, ever on her toes, twisting soles into fine-grained rock where she paused to examine what her feet touched, fathoming.

“Their sensory intakes are off,” we’d been told. “At least to our understanding. They seek input in ways we either don’t or don’t realize that we do. Toe-walking and a preference for barefeet seem to be a frequent manifestation of that. Of course, we just don’t know.”

We only knew that our daughter hated shoes and adored commotion, any form of it – holiday malls or Newport’s summer streets to be sure, but nature-borne turmoil most of all. Wrenching the shirt tighter, my free hand hovered above one of her shoulders like a shrike as I strode along with her back-and-forths, listening to gales ingest those high-pitched eruptions. Her hand-flaps usually match mood to tempo, and upon arresting each skip/hop sequence she bent at the waist to work two hands and ten fingers in ebullient supplication, exhorting some unseen creature to share in the wonderment she’d stumbled upon.

Southward, toward the old lighthouse and bay mouth, the crowd swelled further. A few raincoat-laden arms pointed to mounting waves, but mostly people just stood, watching. In the brush thirty feet behind us and just above the motionless gulls, a yellow-rumped warbler hopped from soil to cedar then down again, re-joining the big birds’ immobility. Having skipped, flapped, and squealed in continuum for half an hour, Shan went through her paces, throttling from jubilation to restive contentment. A grand swell pushed ashore, soaking us both like a summer cloudburst, and lapping the salt from her upper lip, Shannon nudged against me, further deflating to contemplation.

Lord knows what we seek. Nestling Shan in my lap, I sat cross-legged atop the flat rock, facing seaward. A wrack line wouldn’t show until the storm abated, but we watched what it would contain tumble in and out to the diktat of each pulse. Ever shedding ribbons and flakes, offshore kelp beds always contribute, but here whole uprootings churned about like many-armed cephalopods. Shards of jetsam, too, normally seafloor-bound, vanished and appeared at the will of waves – the torqued wires of ruined lobster pots, a lead line from a lost gillnet, half an outboard cowling, most algae stripped clean by the current turbulence. Then the lighter fare:  Plastic bottles. Forks and spoons. A wrecked kite, string attached. Nests of monofilament.

Among it all swirled the faunal waste. Byssal threads severed by the storm, blue mussels flecked the inner life of each wave, rolling with gravel, awaiting the doom of tautog lips, while three cartilage-bound vertebrae segments – large, a seal maybe, or a turtle – snagged on an old limb before all washed back out. A gray lump floated in a just-deposited pool below us, its drenched feathers respiring up and down like branchials. It may have been a catbird, but the bigger storms will knock petrels in. I couldn’t tell and didn’t dare find out. Revolutions of wind banded around us, lifting even Shan’s wet, shorn locks. Rubbing her feet with my thumbs, the two of us simply sat as every onshore creature did – in silence. Occasionally we all do so, need to do so, every fish and fowl and living thing.  To creep inside the maelstrom, toe the wormhole, to bestill and be bestilled.  To blow out the vestibules and feel the voice of God.