Autism and a wonderful lie
It had been 12 years and never a lie, not one. How many parents can say that about their child? As Dr. House (from the TV show) would say, “Everybody lies.” Autistic children were at one time thought incapable of such stealth and critical thought. I found that was not the truth. Sometimes it takes a bit longer to learn how, but everybody lies - even those with autism. It took 12 years before I actually caught my autistic son, Matt, in a lie.
Prior to the big event – the telling of a simple lie – I had assumed Matt was incapable of such a dastardly deed. Up to this point in time, if something happened and it needed explaining, Matt was the person to go to because he always stated the facts – and just the facts - with no embellishments at all. Whenever I would get after my oldest son, Christopher (the usual suspect in these matters), the excuses and explanations were usually some wild tale - which of course, brought about immediate suspicion. At these times all I had to do was turn to Matt and ask him if the tale was true and Matt would give me the facts. Matt never showed signs of being uncomfortable in this position. To him, the world was either black or white, and the current tale Christopher wove was either true or false. “Um, I think Chris did it,” came out very matter-of-fact. He would then provide the details and the jig was up. My oldest would reply indignantly, “You always believe him over me!” Christopher was then usually “grounded.” Disgusted by the whole situation, Christopher would stomp to his room. I’m sure he felt betrayed, ratted-out by his little brother. It was like watching a scene from some old gangster movie. The glare from Christopher could have easily been interpreted as, “Look you, you squealed to the coppers, you dirty rat. Someday you’re gonna get yours.”
The world of black and white changed to gray with Matt’s first lie. I was walking past Matt’s room and noticed something odd. Matt was playing quietly on the floor and next to him was an old WWII army helmet – which belonged to my husband, Tom. The item was kept in his closet in our bedroom. I stopped and looked at Matt and wondered, did Matt actually go in our bedroom and rummage around in our closet? Matt looked up at me, waiting for me to say something. Since I always said something to him as I passed his room, it was no surprise to see this expectant look on his face. “Did you take this?” I asked, walking over to pick up the helmet. The look on his face darkened. “Um,no,” he said softly. I tried again, “Matt, how did daddy’s helmet get in here?” I waited for the details in black and white as usual. Matt looked right at me and said, “I think Chris did it.” Somewhere down the hall a frustrated “Ha!” arose followed by a hardy laugh from Christopher, “I did not! Matt, you little stinker!”
Of course I knew Christopher didn’t do it. Matt was the one that loved the army gear. He had developed a love for anything army over the previous few years; combat video games, WWII books and films, and he even drew army tanks and battle scenes in his art (I’m talking reams of paper depicting every type of battle imaginable!). I had no doubt as to who took the helmet. It was Matt who liked to wear the helmet, the flak jacket, the coat, and carry a gun (a nurf blaster). Tom often retrieved these items from his closet just so Matt could pretend to be a soldier.
I knew at once that Matt had just lied. Matt... just.... lied!
The enormity of this began to register. Matt had just lied, he really lied! I had to scramble to think of what to do next. I knew that telling him he was bad for having lied to me would immediately result in tears and confusion because Matt has always thought of himself as perfect. To even imply he wasn’t was asking for trouble. His self esteem was the foundation that determined whether any type of learning could proceed. Low esteem and Matt would withdraw, preventing any learning to take place. High esteem and he was proud to show you what he knew and open to learning new things. I was constantly building his self esteem. Matt knew he was different and he fought it daily, wanting to be perfect. For example, if I told him he did a great job, he would simply agree with a “yes.” If I praised him for completing a task, he would smile and agree with me – “yep, I’m the greatest.” When I would praise him and tell him he was smart, it would elicit a “Yes, I am.” Unfortunately, telling him that he lied would signify imperfection. . . a flaw. Recognition of a flaw was a trigger for a meltdown. Yet, I knew the terrible deed had to be done. I had to tell him lying was bad.
Let's just say he didn’t take it well. The tears and anger surfaced immediately, and the anger was pointed directly at me. “No, momma, you lie!” Wow! I didn’t see that one coming. What great deflection! It was so unexpected that it caught me completely off guard. “I didn’t lie, when did I lie?” I stammered. I had immediately been put on the defensive by my 12 year old son. He proceeded to unveil a long list of situations and events as examples of my lying prowess; I said we would go a certain place and we hadn’t, I said I would buy him a certain toy and I hadn’t. The list kept going. My God, this kid had been keeping score for a very long time! I was flustered. He had artfully turned the conversation around and made me the bad guy – and I felt it. In order to get the focus back on him I knew I had to first own up to all my misgivings, admit I had indeed “lied.” I then apologized for my lies and asked his forgiveness. That settled him down to a point where we could now at least discuss the situation calmly.
We talked a long while. In the end he understood that he had lied and needed to tell the truth. He gave me the detailed rundown, the black and white, of the entire sequence from his room to Tom’s closet and back to his room to retrieve the helmet. I was actually relieved to know he would still do that. Once he was calm new learning could take place. He learned the closet was off limits and that he could not take things from our room without asking. He learned lying was a bad idea and being caught in a lie was very painful indeed. I learned that I needed to keep my promises better. If I told him we would go somewhere, then we would. I also learned that Matt was just as capable as any other child to skew the lines of truth, and another misconception about autism went the way of the dodo. Communication took a new direction for both of us.
I never again asked Matt to squeal on his big brother. Matt’s earlier expression of “I think it was Chris” under went a metamorphosis to “Christopher did it!” – a private family joke. A Frisbee on the roof? Christopher did it. Toilet stopped up? Christopher did it. Global warming? Yep, Christopher did it. Christopher took it all in stride and enjoyed these tales of dastardly deeds and superhuman evil doings and would eagerly claim to be the mastermind for even the wildest of tales. Matt would laugh at all the tall tales and actually took pride in revealing the ones he himself had done, making sure we knew the real circumstances in black and white. “No, I put the Frisbee on the roof,” Matt would argue. “No, I did it!” Christopher would shoot back, bringing another round of laughter between them. This interplay of fantasy and fact actually brought more than one bonus – it allowed Matt to see that he could tell the truth without getting into trouble and that his imagination was limitless. It also opened up another door to communication and interaction for Matt with each member of his family. This meant that socialization skills, the next step in communication, was also enhanced.
This was 14 years ago when Matt was only 12 years old. Autism awareness did not exist on any meaningful level back then. No one knew an autistic child could do such wonderful things as imaginative play, or feel any remorse or guilt or empathy. Therefore each tiny glimmer of these things were light-bulb moments for me and my family.
Dr. House was right - everybody lies. Even the tiniest of white lies is still a lie. The discovery of a simple lie- while not a big deal normally (after all, parents deal with it all the time) – was an earth-shaking moment for me. This simple act coming from my young autistic son confirmed what I had long suspected - he did “feel,” he did “think,” he did have an “imagination.” It was such a long time ago and back then it was widely thought that autistic individuals were incapable of such human characteristics. So when it happened, it was a really big deal. I was proud of Matt’s first lie, just like I was about his first step and his first word. Truth be told I even did a little dance when he wasn’t looking, releasing my inner joy in a moment of immense satisfaction for having never believed the autism dogma of the time. My son was different – yes, wonderfully, uniquely so – but he was not less.
The telling of a lie – a very human trait – was a moment to celebrate a new found inner peace of what it actually meant to be autistic. My eyes opened. The world seemed brighter somehow. And yet, the only thing that had changed was that Matt had told a lie. . . .a wonderful little lie.