Speaking with Body and Paintings: The Language of My Autistic Son
Neurotypicals often lament that “non-verbal” autistic individuals, i.e., those who do not converse with formal languages (including sign language), like Sebastien, my autistic son, do not communicate.
What if the truth is that they communicating in multiple creative and innovative languages with their unique codes that we are too blind to notice, because of our own reliance on formal language systems?
Back in 2013, when I first started to sell Sebastien's paintings under the tagline, “Speaking in Colors”, I could not have known how true it would ring. At that time, all I could tell was that painting was a form of expression that was distinctively his. For he was neither taught nor guided by anyone with his painting. With every broad stroke that he used to spread the combination of paint and water, he could unleash his inner life on the canvas, without the pressure of having to explain himself, thanks to the "appropriateness" of the activity of painting in and of itself. Yes, I have to admit that back then, I was relieved Sebastien could enter a quiet state of peace and focus through a "normal" activity like painting. It was something that I could encourage, rather than yet another behavior that I would have to extinguish because it did not conform to societal norms.
Slideshow of Sebastien's paintings
Nonetheless, when confronted with Sebastien's abstract paintings that defy any straightforward or unitary interpretation, many people often asked me whether he used any words to describe his paintings. They sought for words that could explain the source of his inspiration, the driving force of his passion. But I could give them none, save the titles that I came up with out of thin air, whether appropriate or not. Some buyers and admirers were satisfied with my interpretation, others less so.
The truth is that my naming of the paintings is just a superficial attempt to cater to our perpetual neurotypical need to make sense of everything in life through words. This is precisely why so many parents, like myself, endeavored with our all our heart and soul to try to teaching Sebastien "our language". As far as we were concerned, the acquisition of ‘our’ language held the key for someone like Sebastien to be able to communicate with us.
However, as the years went by, even as Sebastien could speak, read, and write, he would simply use it to ask for things or help, and only if he had to. He certainly didn't converse; references to topics with no visual accompaniment or no context were beyond him.
Essentially, his grasp of "our" language barely skimmed the surface; "our language" never took root within him. For Sebastien, a formal language, be it English or any other language, would never come natural to him. It would never be be a language of choice, just a functional tool of the last resort to accommodate the others.
Unfortunately, it took me a while to accept this obvious reality. For far too long, I, as well as most of society, considered Sebastien's failure to speak “our language” to be his gross deficit. From our one-sided perspective, he was to blame for our inability to communicate, and thus connect, with one another.
What I would come to realize is that Sebastien is a great communicator. He has always communicated in an articulate fashion in a language that comes naturally to him, whereby his expressiveness courses through every part of his body. There are the more nuanced meanings buried deeply in his mysterious eyes that betray obvious emotions when teardrops he tries to suppress well up in them. Their appearance shows how much he strives to contain his inner sadness. There are the tunes of varying pitches, rhythms and intensities. While some may get it right by calling it "singing" at times, more often than not, these tunes are Sebastien's way of easing his anxiety or discomfort because he is doing his best not to lose his cool in a situation that he can't change or make go away.
You see, as a parent caught up in trying to "fix" him and connect with him with "our language", I missed most of the little signs along the journey of raising Sebastien. Since I could not have interpreted them with any accuracy, i.e., with the equivalent of words that had their specific meanings, I thought it was no big deal for me not to try to understand his language.
Worse still, when Sebastien erupted with fists banging on his head, eyebrow pulling, and aggressive pounces during his pubertal transformation, I concluded that they were all malicious acts of aggression. Only after I had learned more about Sebastien's inner life and how much his adolescent outbursts were a consequence of long-accumulated anger and frustration did it dawn on me that many a times, I had mistaken his eager attempts to reach out to me for help and love as attempts to attack me. And it was precisely my response of fear and rejection, which would be responsible for turning his desperate requests for love and support into outright aggression.
At the end of the day, the real shame isn’t that Sebastien doesn’t communicate like the rest of us. Rather, the real shame is that we as a society has never tried to pay attention to “his language” and endeavored to communicate with him. It is a real shame because Sebastien’s language is special.
In recent times, prior to COVID-19, we had seized upon our periodic visits to Sebastien as golden opportunities to learn how to truly connect with Sebastien. It required us to silence the distracting chatter in our mind, connect with our peaceful self, focus on observing what Sebastien was telling us with his facial expressions and his movements, and reach out in the calmest possible fashion at the right time.
Communicating in this self-way manner isn't easy; it goes against how we operate in the conventional world. Yet by rising to the challenge of entering a quiet space of focus and connecting with the best of ourselves, we are inspired to be better people. Yes, thanks to Sebastien, I strive to communicate with pure unconditional love, stripped of ego, desire, and fear. And after such encounters, when I leave Sebastien to return to Singapore, I would feel buoyed by an incredible "high" of having experienced such a loving form of communion.
Since COVID-19 has prevented us from visiting Sebastien in person in Bali, our "contact" with Sebastien these days has been reduced to our thrice-a-week video calls, the daily photos and videos his carers send us, and his paintings.
Yes, being away from Sebastien, seeing images of his paintings is almost like receiving a creative "letter" from a very special penpal. Ever conscious that Sebastien's paintings is one of his extraordinary ways of conveying his inner life onto a canvas, I began to wonder what it mean when Sebastien's painting style began to change when COVID-19 broke out and led to lockdowns all over the region. Over the weeks that stretched into months, it became apparent that Sebastien was rotating between the same combination of colors to produce several distinctive series of paintings. They were different, yet unified by the same combination of colors.
Slideshow of Sebastien's Painting Series
And one day, out of the blue, it dawned on me, as I gazed at the series of paintings. The sheer fiery energy of the yellows, oranges, pinks and reds, which captures Sebastien's essence so brilliantly, was a perfect counterpoint to the combined hues of the relatively calmer and grounding blues, greens, and browns so synonymous with the Bali village landscape.
Suddenly, I could see how Sebastien's "rotation" between the same colors wove a safe psychological container of the most beautiful and natural kind for him to cope with COVID-19 life — one in which we had abruptly stopped visiting him and he is asked to wear a mask to go out. Although we have made a social story about COVID-19, we have decided not to especially speak about it unless we notice that Sebastien was unduly distressed. As much as possible, we want him to feel that life, even though it has deviated from "business-as-usual", is nothing to feel alarmed about. So long as he is in a safe space, under the care of his loving carers, and pursuing his active life, there is no need to rock the boat.
Of course, I don't know if I got this exactly right. It is just an intuitive interpretation. All that I can be certain of is that Sebastien does not engage in random actions. There is always a reason; the challenge lies in figuring it out.
In fact, there is one painting that stands out clearly in its meaning, which was produced just on the cusp of the first COVID-19 lockdown in early April. I was in the midst of recovering from a foot surgery, which I showed to Sebastien during our video call:
This was what he painted later that day:
Thank you, Sebastien, for your concern. I love you too.
It is rare that I receive a message that I can interpret so readily. But boy, are they so worth waiting for.
And until I can see Sebastien in person again and hug him, I will continue to look out for his special "letters" from Bali.