Ryan’s reputation arrived before he did: brilliant, oppositional, angry, a general pain in the butt, and autistic. His red hooded sweatshirt seemed to arrive before he did as well, a gigantic tent of a garment, held up by the skinniest of 10-year-old boys. As I got to know him, I came to understand that Ryan had good reason to hide beneath that enormous red hood, to shield himself however he could from the dangers of a frustrating world, whose implicit rules he often ignored or misunderstood.
Ryan’s intelligence is remarkable, but much of the time it opens him up to the turmoil of knowing far more than he can manage emotionally. He understands, for example, the politics of disability in our culture, but the pain and anger that accompany this knowledge remain unbearable for him. In turn, he lashes out with his brilliance, using it as a weapon indiscriminately to cut down unworthy opponents and potential allies. It’s as if he has an overly developed intellectual immune system.
One rainy day in March, a few years into his treatment, I was feeling upset that a dear friend and valuable mentor had moved away to another city. This was nothing I couldn’t get over, but as I plodded through a full day of patients, probably too many, I felt a heavy burden of grief weighing on me. None of my patients seemed to notice that I wasn’t feeling my best, even as waves of sadness kept coming up.
Then, at 8:30 p.m., Ryan came in, my last client of the day. We started the session by playing with Legos—a widely used social lubricant for shy and awkward children. They brought out a side of Ryan that not many people got to see—that he was an exceptionally talented builder, with the mind of a future engineer. From elaborate spacecrafts to tiny, multilegged creatures, my office is filled with his creations.
As we sat on the floor, he embarked on one of his usual rants, complaining about how people didn’t understand him, how they were all idiots, and how he’d been failed by others over and over again.
Had he tried my patience and tested my commitment to him over the years? Certainly! He often told multiple iterations of his various complaints, which usually cascaded with increasing force and were sometimes aimed at me. But that evening, his rant quickly diminished and he grew quiet as he focused on the Legos. Noticing the shift, I was a little relieved that in my saddened state I wouldn’t be required to experience his upset on top of my own. As I watched him construct a set of complex vehicles, I saw that not many wheels remained in my gigantic Lego vat. Hmm, I thought, I don’t have many wheels left. I wonder, is it possible to go out and buy just Lego wheels?
Suddenly, Ryan looked up from his project and said, “You’re not okay today.” I was so stunned by his comment that it took me a few moments to recover. He was right, but I thought I’d masked it better.
Quickly, I realized that I could be straight with my young client or play shrink, as in “What are you noticing that gives you that impression?” Or “What does it mean to you that I appear not okay today?” Or, my favorite, “I wonder if you’re feeling not okay tonight?”
Since Ryan rarely commented on my demeanor (after all, he’s autistic and allegedly doesn’t easily read other people’s states and feelings), I decided not to involve him in some obtuse guessing game. “Yeah,” I said. “Today I’m sad.”
There was a pause. Then Ryan murmured softly, his gaze averted, almost as though he didn’t want me to hear him, “I feel sad, too, because you’re sad.”
Not wanting to get too excited and extinguish the flickering spark between us, I kept my response low-key. “Yeah, you can tell what I’m feeling,” I said. “I like that. You can feel it, too.” Shortly thereafter our session ended peacefully, notable for its difference from other endings, which had felt like abrupt, unkind uprootings.
The following week, Ryan came in with a smirky smile, lips pursed, as if trying hard to hold something in check. Wordlessly, Ryan met my gaze and directed it downward, revealing that in his hands was a white box. With a ceremonious flourish, he presented the box to me.
Slowly, I pulled out the little cardboard flaps and lifted the top. Inside the box, wrapped in plastic, were no fewer than 100 Lego wheels, in various sizes. My mouth fell open.
“Ryan! How did you know that I’d been thinking about Lego wheels just last week?”
He shrugged, but he couldn’t hide his smile. “I just knew,” he said.
Now in his early 20s, Ryan has grown up before my eyes, emerging as a thoughtful young man. He still struggles to find his place in a world that he finds inhospitable, but he’s learned to take increasing responsibility for himself, rather than blaming others so forcefully. In our work together over the last 12 years, I haven’t cured his autism, and neither he nor I wishes for that to occur. Instead, I’ve learned not only what he’s capable of, but what we’re capable of together.
Christina Emanuel, MFT, PsyD, has a private practice and works primarily with young adults with autism and other disabilities. She‘s a training and supervising analyst at the Institute of Contemporary Psychoanalysis and an associate editor of the International Journal of Psychoanalytic Self Psychology.