By Ron Fournier
December 1, 2012
Guidance from Bill Clinton and George W. Bush taught the author how to accept and understand his son’s Asperger’s Syndrome.
|Ron and Tyler visit the Smithsonian Air & Space Museum|
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.
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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.”
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.
(PICTURES: Ron Fournier, His Son and Two Presidents)
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 be so 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, Arkansas, 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.
“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?”
“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?”
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?”
“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.”
“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.
“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.