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Tell Me What You Want

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Courtesy of John Elder Robison
Courtesy of John Elder Robison

One of my greatest challenges as a new dad was determining what my kid wanted or needed. Even though I got better at empathy following Cubby's arrival, it remained hard for me to figure him out much of the time. He seemed to get distressed and yell for no reason, but I knew there must be one -- I just couldn't discern it. Things will get better once he learns to talk. I reassured myself with that platitude, but it did not really come to pass. The biggest problem was Cubby himself: Even after he could talk, he could not be counted on to reliably articulate his needs. People had always said I should take responsibility for my actions, and I assumed the same was true for him. That assumption turned out to be wrong.

I did my best to anticipate his needs, but I didn't get a whole lot better at it. "I'm not a mind reader," guys sometimes say to the women in their lives. "It's up to you to tell me what you want." While I could say that to a grown-up, I was somehow expected to figure out a kid, even though he was more inscrutable than most adults.

Some gestures were unmistakable. A single arm outstretched and accompanied by yelling meant, Give that toy back to me! Both arms outstretched meant, Pick me up! Arms outstretched while rocking side to side meant, Toss me in the air and catch me! At least, that's how I interpreted it. His mom understood that expression to mean, Pick me up and rock me. Clearly there were multiple possible translations for many of Cubby's signals, something that was an occasional source of disagreement between his mom and me. She was seldom willing to concede the priority or the correctness of my interpretations, always believing "mother knows best."

Then there were subtler signals, like the ones for change my diaper or I need a nap. Those remained totally invisible to me.

It was an aggravating problem, one that gave me trouble every time I took Cubby on an adventure. If I took him on a day-long expedition, he would start out nice, but halfway through the day, he would melt down and have a tantrum. If we were lucky, he would howl a few minutes, get distracted, and become jolly again. But all too often, he would drop to the floor and lie flat on his back, spinning around and around while shrieking at the top of his lungs. That was bad, because the longer he howled, the harder it was to reset him to his usual jolly state. At times, he sank so far into tantrum that he yelled himself unconscious. His meltdowns were terrible to experience.

Most of the time, I couldn't stop him. Petting or comforting him did nothing except get me smacked with little fists. So I tried the opposite approach: yelling, stunning him with sound, or flashing my Maglite at him as he hollered. At best, those distractions did nothing. At worst, they recharged his howl mechanism. Usually I'd carry him outside and let him yell himself to exhaustion away from public view. That was about all I could do.

I figured he was just falling apart for reasons unknown, but I was wrong.

"All he needs is food," Little Bear and other mothers were quick to suggest. They said it as though it was head-smackingly obvious, but it had never even occurred to me. I could go all day without eating, provided I was distracted by something exciting; the idea that a toddler needed more frequent refueling had never entered my mind. I assumed the excitement of a train or bulldozer ride would be all either of us needed, but I was wrong.

And indeed they were right. Stuffing food into his mouth was one of the few things that would actually interrupt a tantrum, to my great wonder and surprise. When it worked, the meltdown just stopped, and he returned to his original bouncing, happy self in short order. It was almost magical, the way his disposition changed with the ingestion of a little food. I marveled at how others could see that he was hungry, while that simple thing remained totally invisible to me.

Where was the Feed Me sign? I could never find it.

Even after I knew failure to feed could trigger a meltdown, I consistently missed the connection. I tried to analyze the problem logically, beginning with my own behavior when hungry. I opened the refrigerator or nosed around the cabinets. My actions were directly and obviously related to the acquisition and ingestion of food. Cubby didn't do that. When he got hungry, he would explode at the suggestion that we should go check out a steam engine exhibit, or howl at the notion of visiting the aquarium. How could I possibly connect those tantrums to a need for food? Any logical person would see Cubby's behavior and conclude he did not want to do what I just suggested. Hearing that he did not want to do something, I said, "Okay. If you don't want to go to the aquarium, what do you want to do?" Many times, that simply elicited more howling and complaining. When I could not get a coherent answer from him, I was stuck. I was trying to solve a perceived activity problem, while totally failing to see the underlying need for feeding.

The way some women can see a child going berserk and simply say, "He's famished, let's get him something to eat!" remains a complete mystery to me. It's as if they see blue and I see red, and each of us believes the evidence of our own eyes. The most frustrating thing was that moms who were not even close relations could see what he needed and I could not. It was humiliating. Sometimes they would look at me accusingly, as if I should have known or as though I was being a neglectful dad.

Why couldn't Cubby tell me what he needed? Why did it fall upon me to remember? I finally realized that he did not know himself. He was too young to know how lack of food affected his mood. At the time, that realization was a shock to me. A few years later, when I learned about Asperger's, my inability to recognize signals like feed me made a little more sense. There are many times Asperger's gives me an advantage, but this was most assuredly not one of them.

The fact is, I couldn't see the signals. And I still can't. All I can do is observe what others do, make a behavioral rule, and do my best to remember and follow it. For example, I could make a rule that we would set off on adventures with a timer set for two hours. When it went off, I fed him. Whether he said he wanted food or not, he needed it.

I used that same logic to stay on top of his other needs, too. Instead of waiting for a stench or a yell, I learned to check his diaper before we set out on a journey, and at regular intervals during the trip. Like most dads, I wished there was a way to make him poop on demand, so I could get him changed by Mom before departing, but I never figured that one out. Even without that, though, my system of logic, timing, and inspection proved invaluable in keeping Cubby happy and quiet.

Food, drink, clean diapers, and naps were the keys to Cubby's good mood throughout his infancy. Important as those things were, though, he never learned to ask for them by name. Other children are probably the same, and the strategies I developed will quite likely work with them too. I'll put that notion to the test at some future date, when Cubby produces grandchildren.

Dads like me could learn a lot from successful veterinarians, who learn to read discomfort in animals. Unfortunately, I did not know any vets with whom I could apprentice, and now it doesn't matter because Cubby is finally old enough to speak for himself. However, advancing age, awareness, and verbal skill came with their own problems, as Cubby began articulating his critical need for every toy, candy, and kid treat that passed before his eyes on morning television. I began to suspect what one grizzled old mom had told me was true: "They're cutest when they're tiny."

Excerpted from Raising Cubby: A Father and Son's Adventures with Asperger's, Trains, Tractors, and High Explosives by John Elder Robison. Copyright © 2013 by John Elder Robison. Published by Crown Publishers, a division of Random House, Inc.

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