Friday, April 3, 2020

Learning from Peter

When my youngest grandson, Peter, was two-months-old, his mother called one night in a panic. It seems he had stopped responding both to loud noises and bright lights. He had gone passive. It frightened Hal and me, too, and we went into a week’s period of intense prayer and fasting, not knowing what else to do. Within a week, young Peter began responding again as a normal infant to outside stimuli, especially sounds.
But our daughter, Kristin, while relieved, knew something was still not right. Then at four-months-old, we received the diagnosis. Peter was blind. We all accepted this news with sorrow and began learning braille.
Again, Peter surprised us as the months passed, reaching up to the bright mobile in his crib, and turning toward lights. As he learned to crawl, he managed to navigate around furniture without crashing into it. The first sentence he said to me, as I turned on the light in the bedroom, was “Light on.” Obviously, he could see something.  (We were later to learn that, while visually impaired, the sight he did have would allow him to live almost as well as a sighted person. That’s another story.)
But Peter continued to puzzle his parents. When he was two, Kristin followed her instincts and had him tested for autism. He tested positive. Again, we all struggled with this diagnosis and began our different ways of coping. Meanwhile, Peter kept developing and growing.
His speech was delayed, and we wondered if non-communication might be one of his autistic traits. Actually, on the inside he was absorbing language at an astonishing rate, and it began coming out in complete sentences during his second year.
I remember well the first “grown-up” sentence he said to me. I had just put him down for his afternoon nap, and as I closed the door, I said, “Night, night, Peter.” He raised his head, looked directly at me, and said, “See ya later, Honey.” (He must have heard Hal say that to me.)
Peter turned out to be a very communicative person. As corresponds with his autism, his communication style is frequent, sometimes loud, repetitive, and quirky. It requires great patience from the rest of the family.
One of the more interesting quirks is his inability to process metaphor. He takes things literally, which can have some funny results. One morning we were playing together on the living room floor. I got up, telling him I needed to go fix the lunch. “Grandma!” he protested. “You can’t fix the lunch. It’s not broken!”
As a member of the young-tykes T-Ball team, he loved batting since the ball was mounted close enough for him to see. But playing in the field was a problem, so the coach decided he could play third base. He could see the base and would be able to spot an approaching runner. The coach instructed him, “Peter, all you need to do is cover third base. Don’t bother about what’s going on around you. Just cover third base.”
And he did. As the first runner approached, with the crowd yelling, Peter energetically threw himself on top of third base, not letting the runner touch it. He effectively covered third base.
When Kristin accompanied him to the first day of first-grade, his kindergarten teacher from the previous year came up and exclaimed, “Peter, I can’t believe it! You grew another foot over the summer!”
Shock and anger combined in Peter’s face. He quickly looked down, pointed, and responded, “No, I didn’t! Look! There’s still just two!”
My collection of Peter-sayings is large, but these examples illustrate the challenge. He has since learned about metaphor, can recognize figures of speech, and has developed strategies of responding that make him seem normal. He knows people don’t always mean what they say. Peter is bright.
But Peter does more than make us laugh at his misinterpretations. We’re learning to listen for his unique perspectives. His brain obviously functions differently and his creative mind often comes up with insights that seem beyond his years.
I had the most interesting conversation with him when he was ten-years-old. He was staying with us for a week in our Friendsview apartment. One morning he began asking a series of questions on death and the nature of existence. The questions amazed us, and we quickly realized he was not expecting us to answer. He was expressing wonderment. So we just listened, encouraging him to continue. I took notes, which didn’t seem to bother him. I couldn’t catch it all, but here’s part of that series of questions and observations, quoted verbatim:

“What would you feel like if you were dead? Would you still feel like you were there? But how could you feel if you did not exist? It’s hard to explain….
“If you and Grandpa had not married, would I have been born to strangers? Or would I have been born at all? Would I exist?...
“If you’re dead, you’re gone. What would you feel if you were gone? Would you think or have feelings? It’s so hard to explain. I don’t think you understand what I’m trying to say, Grandma….
“If there was nothing when God didn’t yet create the world, how would you be there? If you weren’t born yet, how would you be there? Imagine not being there and not being able to think….
“I started to think about this since kindergarten. When I think really really big, my brain starts to hurt….
“I’ve got a huge suggestion for the Bible: they should make it easier to understand….
“The smallest word with the most complex meaning is God.”

Peter is now 12-years-old, learning to negotiate the world of middle school. His favorite classes are band (he plays the drums and loves repetitive rhythms) and computers, at which he is a whiz. He says he wants to write and illustrate books when he grows up. He already has a small stack of his creations. I hope he continues.
Among other things, Peter is teaching me to value the perspectives of people who are in some way different, strange, marginal, other. We have much to learn from them.

No comments:

Post a Comment