As regular readers well know, I am the father to four children – one deceased (Samuel) and the three amigos. Our middle child, Daniel, is 14 years old, lanky, laconic, and in that mildly goofy-looking stage of adolescence, though slightly less so now that his teeth have been realigned, thanks to the wonders of modern orthodontia. Adding somewhat to that appearance of goofiness is Daniel’s mild-to-moderate autism, which expresses itself in a variety of ways. For instance, he is cognitively delayed a bit (although less so than some might surmise at first inspection), has difficulty expressing himself verbally and/or sustaining a conversation, and for reasons known (maybe) only to himself displays a tendency to raise his right arm and slap it against his right thigh, apropos of nothing.
Daniel is also one of the sweetest-natured human beings I’ve ever had the pleasure to encounter. He is thoughtful and compassionate, patient, generous. When asked he will stop whatever he is doing to help his mother, me, or one of his siblings, and do so without complaint or delay. He is punctual. He is dutiful. He is considerate.
And you would have thought by now that I’d have learned not to be surprised by what he can master and what he elects to try, but you’d be wrong. It is simultaneously an indictment of my faith in Daniel and a splendid, exciting emotional experience: He never ceases to surprise and amaze me.
Two examples from this past week are illustrative: Daniel and two peers were enrolled this summer in an educational program designed to teach them a variety of job-related skills and to introduce them to a range of vocational options in our area. He and his buddies learned how to function as strong members of a team, how to communicate well, and how to be an effective advocate. They drafted resumes and conducted mock interviews. They toured a number of local businesses who regularly hire individuals involved with the Darke County Board of Developmental Disabilities, and heard what traits mark an impressive employee.
The course ended last week and Daniel, his cohorts, and their indefatigable and enthusiastic instructor “Ms. Nance” (for Nancy), welcomed loved ones for an open house. As part of the festivities, Daniel and his fellow participants each took turns offering a brief presentation on their favorite elements of their experience. When it was Daniel’s turn, he emphasized how fascinated he was by their tour of the Versailles Winery and how much he enjoyed learning how to bake bread. Of the Winery, he concluded – with as broad a smile as I’ve ever seen on his face – “it was, like [he IS, after all, a teenager … complete with an American teenager’s faulty patois], really enjoyable!” Then he turned to those assembled and added agreeably, “Does anyone have any questions??!” He fielded a couple from the crowd, quite ably. My young man of few words was briefly transformed into a chatty Carl. You could have knocked me over with a proverbial feather!
After his “performance” I expressed to Daniel my pride and surprise, to which he offered – quite smartly – “You shouldn’t be surprised, dad. I can do all sorts of things you don’t know about.”
A few days later he proved, again, the truth of that assessment. We went to the Greenville Municipal Swimming Pool together, as we often do during the dog days of summer, and wrestled in the cool, blue water for about 20 minutes. This constitutes a pretty good workout for me, now that Daniel is a strapping and strong teenager and I am gradually concluding my sixth decade on the planet. After Daniel had dunked me for the third or fourth time and thereby declared to all the observing world his physical superiority, I excused myself.
“You win, Daniel. I’m going to sit in the sun a while and rest – okay?”
“Okay. You rest, old man. You were boring me, anyway,” he teased.
Fifteen minutes later the lifeguards blew their whistles, signaling the onset of “adult swim” and a 10-minute period for those under 18 years of age to exit the pool and rest. I searched for Daniel in his usual spot, but couldn’t find him. After a few seconds I spotted him walking toward me from the general area of the diving boards.
“Hey, dad!” he barked joyfully. “Guess what I did!”
“I dunno. What?”
“I jumped off the diving board!”
“Yes! The high diving board. And I ran off. Seriously.”
“What made you want to do that?” I asked, truly incredulous.
“Well. I was just standing in the pool watching other people go off the board and I said to myself, ‘I think I wanna try that.’ So I did. I took a leap of faith and conquered my fears!” He grinned, proudly.
“Wow, Daniel. You never cease to amaze me. You gotta feather with you?”
“Never mind. Inside joke.”